Turning curtain-twitchers into cops

Britain's plans for 25,000 Community Support Officers will put busybodies on the beat.

Jamie Douglass

Topics Politics

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Here in Britain, we have a wonderful way with cliché. For years, the dominant cry concerning the police has been for more ‘bobbies on the beat’. This summons up all that we think best about policing – a sort of Heartbeat-of-Dock-Drummond world of policing, with immaculate serge uniforms and a bicycle with a little bell.

Over the past few years the actual number of policemen has reached an all-time zenith of 138,000 (1). Yet home secretary David Blunkett claims that there aren’t nearly enough of them.

Not content with having recruited 11,000 more officers since 1997, Blunkett has announced that he’s going for 25,000 Community Support Officers (CSOs) by 2008 (2). To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the population of Didcot. It will also bring the ‘wider police family’ up to 227,000, which is about the population of Derby. Hopefully now the demand for bobbies will stop, because otherwise we’re going to have to institute a special children’s police force, with patrolling by the under-fives, or have OAPCs who subdue criminals with stories about rationing and Werther’s Originals.

A CSO does not have full police powers, but it is perhaps what some would like a bobby on the beat (BOTB) to be. CSOs have the power to issue fixed penalty notices for dog fouling or riding on footpaths, and can confiscate alcohol and tobacco, though presumably only off people who shouldn’t have them in the first place (3). They can ‘report vandalism or damaged street furniture…suspicious activity; provide crime prevention advice, deter juvenile justice and visit victims of crime’, for which they require a training course (4). They can also request a name and address, although most people with the powers of speech can do that – so perhaps they have the power to get really cross if it’s not provided.

They can even ‘detain a suspect for up to 30 minutes pending the arrival of a constable’ (although what happens if said officer is a no-show is not detailed; one suspects this will lead to lots of dodgy-looking characters standing on street corners, staring at their watches, next to someone who looks a bit like a copper). CSOs’ lower maxillary bones are perfectly sculpted for helmet-retention, and their mounted campanology second to none. It surely can’t be long before they are granted the power to deploy a medium-velocity manual strike to the ear.

Understandably, there has been a bit of confusion over exactly what a CSO represents, leading to most local authorities posting up a question-and-answer page on their websites. In Essex, one question posed was ‘Are they like special constables, traffic wardens or local authority neighbourhood wardens?’. The answer is unequivocal: ‘they are not the same as special constables, traffic wardens or local authority wardens.’ (5) Clears that one up then.

This may be the future of policing, but it’s the policing of the past. For all their razor-edge ‘progressive’ stances, the government is permanently attempting to resurrect John Major’s ‘afternoon vicar!’ society of warm beer and misty bicycling nuns. A litter-free, September sun society with cricket on the green and cattle lowing in the fields, and nary a sniff of dog shit. Not a week goes by without a crackdown on something that might threaten this England, be it excessive drinking, graffiti, asylum seekers, bad driving, drugs or ticket touts. The problem is that it is impossible simply to legislate such a society into being.

In a way, one can cynically admire Blunkett’s sleight-of-policy. Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and Outraged of Godalming demanded more police officers, and the home secretary has turned round and said ‘okay, become one’. If they want to return to a polite society of well-tugged forelocks then they can work to make it happen, rather than just firing off spluttering missives to the parish rag. But it won’t just be happening in commuter heaven. The new policy amounts to giving the neighbourhood bore legal powers, and sponsoring curtain-twitching with £50million of taxpayers’ cash.

Canine faeces is annoying, as is litter, but neither should be criminalised. Anti-social behaviour may be intimidating and offensive, but so are charity muggers with clipboards, and nobody’s suggesting we outlaw them. CSOs aren’t really going to be ‘supporting’ the police at all, not in the sense of helping fight crime or solving complicated murders. Instead, they’ll constitute a new wing of behavioural police, whose remit is to ensure that everyone is polite and smiling and well behaved. In devolving policing to the community, the government is not empowering people to manage their own environment, but bringing ever-increasing numbers under the wing of central government, and giving them a license to stamp down their own prejudices across the statute book. At the same time, police manage to absolve themselves from guilt when things go wrong. Don’t like your society? Your fault, chum. Upset by something? Join us, and we’ll make it a crime.

By 2008 there will be around 163,000 PCs and CSOs. Given that the population of England and Wales is just under 53million, that means that there’ll be one officer for every 320 people. But given that around 64,000 of those people are likely to be in prison already (6), the ratio could be even lower. In spite of all these police, though, you’re unlikely to be able to find an officer on the few occasions when you need one – when somebody’s burgled your house, for example, or when a gunman is on the loose.

The establishment of CSOs is a step towards a human panopticon, where everyone is watching everyone else all the time. Anyone stepping out of line can be fined, or ‘detained pending’ arrest. Given that half of young people would welcome a return of corporal punishment, perhaps in the not-too-distant future miscreants will be given a good flogging, or put in the town stocks. After all, it’s not that far from ‘naming and shaming’.

‘Police state’ is a bit of a cliché, but that’s okay. We Brits are good at them.

(1) Record Police Numbers: Redefining Police Numbers to Promote Reassurance, Home Office statement, 2 March 2004

(2) Blunkett talks Tough on Law and Order, Daily Telegraph, 29 September 2004

(3) Police Reform: Community Support Officers, Home Office

(4) Essex Police

(5) Essex Police

(6) The Prison Population in 1999, Research, Development and Statistics Department, Home Office

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Topics Politics


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