Police angry at plan to give batons to community officers

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Community support officers (CSOs) are to be given sweeping new powers and could be issued with handcuffs and batons, the Government said yesterday.

Community support officers (CSOs) are to be given sweeping new powers and could be issued with handcuffs and batons, the Government said yesterday.

Ministers said the move would help the fight against antisocial behaviour, but grassroots police officers warned that CSOs were in danger of encroaching on their traditional role. The plan was disclosed as the Home Office published the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which creates a new agency, a "British FBI", to fight drug kingpins and criminal gangs.

Under the CSO plans, the civilian wardens will get powers to search suspects they have detained. They will be able to look for items that could be dangerous or could allow suspects to escape, such as car keys. The Bill will also allow them to direct traffic, deal with beggars, and enter licensed premises.

They will also be able to photograph suspects who have been arrested, detained or issued with spot fines at locations other than police stations. It also gives them powers to access personal information about drivers. Hazel Blears, a Home Office minister, said: "We have been very careful to direct these powers to low-level antisocial behaviour because we don't want to take CSOs off the streets because they are doing such an excellent job.

"There is nothing more frustrating to find that something happens and they haven't got the power to deal with it."

Ms Blears said police chiefs would have the discretion to issue protective equipment, such as batons and handcuffs, to CSOs. "Chief constables have to do risk assessments on the situations they are allowed in," she said. "Many have stab-proof vests. But if you are asking them to do something, they have to be properly prepared, trained and equipped."

The Government has announced plans to boost the numbers of CSOs from 5,000 to 25,000, a policy attacked as providing "plastic police" on the cheap. Ministers have repeatedly insisted the CSOs would reinforce, rather than replace, fully fledged police officers.

Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation, accused the Home Office of dramatically changing its proposals on CSOs. "By giving them more powers we are effectively taking them away from the communities they are there to serve and it also begs the question of what is the difference between a CSO and a police officer," she said.

The Bill's centrepiece is the creation of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), an elite force of 5,000 officers who will hunt crime bosses in Britain and abroad. Soca, which merges existing law enforcement agencies, will cost £368m by 2005-06. But ministers say the cost of organised crime to Britain runs into billions.

Other proposals include a new "supergrass" system. Criminals who turn Queen's Evidence could win immunity from prosecution, or have their sentence heavily reduced if they shop criminal godfathers.

The Bill will allow courts to force crime bosses to hand over bank statements and other details for up to 20 years after sentence to prove they have reformed. The Bill also cracks down on animal rights extremists who target people connected with vivisection by creating a new offence of harassing someone in their home.