Last Night’s TV – Dispatches: Cops on the Cheap?

by Lynn Connolly


Last night’s latest offering from Dispatches investigated the role – and usefulness – of Police Community Support Officers, thousands of whom patrol the streets of this country, usually alone and putting themselves at inordinate risk while having few powers to deal with the criminal behaviours they may witness.

Antony Barnett presented this programme and, as is the wont of Dispatches, he gave dozens of facts and figures about the overall effect of PCSOs on national crime statistics, but irrespective of the spreadsheet data, several facts came through loud and clear.

They were that PCSOs operate, as I mentioned, largely alone, which, given that the majority of them can’t even make an arrest or detain someone, puts them at considerable risk. They are issued with bicycles instead of squad cars and in general, are treated as ‘plastic police’.

And the reason for their existence? Well, David Blunkett decided that on a community level, the concerns of people about having a visible police force needed to be addressed. However, regular police officers start out on pay of around £20,000 and require months of training. A PCSO is paid £16,000 and has just five weeks of training, so clearly, they are the cheaper option and given they have uniforms that have the word ‘Police’ on them, his hope was that these men and women would be the “eyes and ears” of the police force.

There are now around 17,000 PCSOs in the UK and as ever where beaurocracy is concerned, confusion surrounds their role. In some forces, PCSOs are allowed to detain individuals and have handcuffs as part of their “kit”. In the majority of forces though, this is not the case.

As one PCSO interviewed remarked, “retail security guards are more proactive than us.” And in many areas of the country, PCSOs are the subject of derision and disdain as they cycle around communities, acting like police without any of the powers of police.

So what’s the point of having them? Well, as Antony discovered, their role is largely to deal with petty issues – which are far from petty to those suffering from the effects of them – such as groups of drunken kids causing a nuisance or criminal damage. And as we saw in the programme, often, those individuals who are the primary targets for PCSOs are fully aware that the PCSOs are more or less totally powerless and as such, they are often verbally and physically abused.

But given that we live in a society that is often held to ransom by youths who have little or no respect for the law, it came as no surprise that those same youths hold PCSOs in total contempt. So much so that, as we saw on the programme, they’re quite happy to actually commit crimes in front of a PCSO.

The overriding message that came out of this programme for me is that the role of – and the powerlessness of – PCSOs is a time bomb just waiting to go off. Sooner rather than later, I fear we’re going to read a headline about a PCSO being killed on a street somewhere in the UK. I suspect we’re also going to hear eventually about PCSOs patrolling alone who’ve been badly beaten, or stabbed or raped.

It’s wholly unfair and inherently wrong to put someone who’s received barely any training onto the streets, with only their uniforms as some form of ‘protection’ – though often it has the opposite effect and provokes unwanted attention from thugs and criminals – and add to that, ask them to ‘patrol’ alone on bicycles.

Would the Territorial Army put their men and women on the frontline in Basra without a weapon? Would a Healthcare Assistant in the NHS be asked to triage patients in an A&E department with little more than first aid training? No, or least, one would hope not, but those situations are analogous to the role of PCSOs.

Ultimately, while PCSOs may, as several interviewees in the programme suggested, help to prevent and detect crimes by passing on local information to officers with standard police powers, they are putting themselves, and us, at risk with their lack of training, their lack of powers and their lack of credibility.

The lack of credibility extends not only to individuals in the communities these men and women patrol but also to the regular police force, some of whom call PCSOs “chimps”, an acronym for “completely hopeless in most policing situations.”

Unless these officers are given more powers and more training, and their role nationally standardised, someone, somewhere, is going to die because these men and women are effectively ‘toy police’. We may as well have those cardboard cut-outs of police officers that once sprang up in shops as have PCSOs, if a public presence is what’s required. But these are real people facing real danger, and they haven’t got a hope of defending themselves or us, the public, should a situation come down to the wire.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.