If you thought the days of village bobbies were over, then think again. Soon you might be seeing more uniforms than ever patrolling the streets.
Last year Lancashire Police drafted in 100 part LEA-funded Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) with a further 334 more due this year, and the London Metropolitan Police Service is also planning a major recruitment drive in 2007 and 2008.
PCSOs are becoming increasingly vital as crime rates soar and community spirit wanes. Although they do not have the same powers of arrest or investigation as regular police officers, they still carry a lot of responsibility and are a critical part of the police force.
Bhupinder Singh Gakhal has been a PCSO for West Yorkshire Police for more than two years. He got the job by chance, although he always had an interest in community affairs.
"I'd been working in a foundry for 18 years, doing every possible job from crane driver to quality-control inspector and never expected to do anything else," he says. Gakhal was made redundant due to injury and, while he was unemployed, was invited by a local community leader to a police meeting to discuss how the Iraq war might be affecting his community.
While there, a sergeant offered him the chance to volunteer in the race-hate department of his local police station and he's never looked back. "It opened my eyes to what the police can achieve in our local communities," he says.
Based in the student area of Headingley, one of Ghakal's jobs is to hold a police surgery for Leeds students. "Students can come in and discuss in confidence any issues they may have. I've also set up a Shop Watch scheme which has helped to reduce shoplifting by linking together shopkeepers in the area. It's about listening to the concerns of people and local businesses, helping to resolve problems and make them feel safer."
For Gakhal, there's a fair amount of job satisfaction. "I have hundreds of people telling me that they feel safer now that we're around. It's incredibly satisfying to know that you're making a difference to people's lives."
Unlike standard entry requirements for the police force, there are no height restrictions to be a PCSO and, whilst there's no formal educational standard needed, there are written tests, and the usual medical fitness requirements.
PCSOs usually fall into four broad categories: crime and anti-social behaviour prevention; public safety; traffic and parks; and can provide support at special events. They can all make house-to-house enquiries and issue penalties. Successful applicants enjoy a certain amount of flexibility in their working hours and can choose to work full-time, part-time, as part of a job share or even seasonally.
"As a PCSO every day is different," Ghakal says. "You could be on your beat walking down the street when suddenly there's a road-traffic incident and you will have to respond immediately."
The role of a PCSO is so varied that it can appeal to people from all backgrounds. Kelly Johns, 27, who works in the London borough of Bromley, studied childcare at college before working in an investment bank. She joined the police force in 2004 and trained to be a police officer for 10 weeks before failing some of the exams. But she loved the environment so much that she decided to stay on as a PCSO.
"I used to hate the fact I never got to speak to people face to face. It was always by phone or email. Whilst I enjoyed the lifestyle and having the spare cash to indulge my passion for shoes and handbags, I missed real conversation," she says.
Working as a PCSO also appeals to Johns because she has always preferred shiftwork. "I like having a day off in the week to go shopping!" she laughs. Duties, says Johns, "can range from dealing with an unhappy resident who's had rubbish tipped on her front lawn to a serious accident. Dealing with anti-social behaviour is the most challenging aspect of my job."
As well as making a difference in her community, Johns feels the job has changed her own life. "As PCSOs we don't have batons or handcuffs, but we do have the ability to talk people round and help resolve issues at an early stage. It's a skill I've found I can use outside work, too."
John Graham is director of the Police Foundation which, through the Cassells Inquiry in the late 1990s, recommended the introduction of PCSOs. "Anecdotal evidence shows that this relatively cheap, visible police presence reassures people," he says, "but, more importantly, they do a great deal to engage with local people to develop a trusting relationship with the police. There can be a knee-jerk response to a crime from the police, but PCSOs can look at the causes rather than being purely reactive. That's their biggest and most important function."