As a police and crime commissioner I have many times been criticised by the policing profession for being ‘too ambitious’. Probably no more so than over my policy of increasing four-fold the number of volunteer Special Constables we have in Northamptonshire.
Adam Simmonds: be daring
While I tend to take this label of being ‘too ambitious’ as a compliment rather than as condemnation, I do want to challenge whether my aspirations for a bigger and better role for Specials and volunteers really are that
radical, and to explore what real radicalism on this agenda might look like.
Let us start with a sense of history. Volunteer Constables have a much longer history than paid constables; far from seeing volunteer officers as a radical innovation, they actually represent the continuation of a centuries old tradition and cornerstone of law enforcement. Despite the resistance of some police professionals that the numbers of volunteer officers are being driven up unrealistically high by some PCCs, in fact for most of the last century there were more volunteer constables in our police forces than there are today.
Even in peacetime, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the numbers of Specials were approaching ten times the 16,500 or so that there are in England and Wales today. The Home Office’s formal position in 1948, in its policing reviews after the World War, was that the number of Specials should not be less than half that of regulars (the equivalent today nationally would be 65,000 Specials).
My ‘radical’ modernising agenda in Northamptonshire is only now reaching the proposed Government minimum set for the policing service some 67 years ago.
A Home Office national recruitment campaign launched in 1991 to build the Special Constabulary’s strength set a target ration of at least 20 per cent of Specials to regulars, a figure that two decades and more later we still, as a country, lag far below.
Given that history, my ambitions as a PCC are cast in a light of seeming neither particularly novel nor radical.
But perhaps I have been ‘too ambitious’ with the pace or with the specifics of my reform, if not with its ultimate scale? Again, the facts don’t fit that critique. In Northamptonshire – which has grown Specials to be the largest cohort per head of population anywhere in the country – our three year endeavour has swollen the ranks of our Specials, averaged out at a growth figure of 10 per month. In the context of a force with 1,220 regular officers, such growth figures would seem far from dramatic or unmanageable to executives running just about any other organisation.
If I am to be genuinely radical, and to hang onto that prized label of being ‘too ambitious’, what does the future for Special Constables look like?
We should be daring to think about our Specials as being at the core of police reform, rather than as a ‘nice to have’ extra; to start thinking what is potentially possible, if we majorly scaled numbers, if we reimagined roles, if we managed it all very differently and if police services became excellent volunteer organisations. What would be possible if we genuinely put the weight of professional reform behind this Specials agenda? If we genuinely embedded and integrated how they work, if we supported and developed Specials and if we realised all of their potential skills and contributions?
Alongside that we need to genuinely put all of this to the test, as with all aspects of policing. Everything we do with and through Specials needs to be subjected to the full and objective spotlight of rigorous evaluation. We need to develop the ‘science’ of police volunteering, to capture much more effectively ‘what works’ with volunteer officers and to translate that into improved Specials programmes, consistently reflecting best practice, in every force in the country.
Our Institute for Public Safety, Crime and Justice is embarking on an Evidence-Based Police Volunteering Programme to drive that radical, evidenced change, across this arena of volunteer policing where so many of the practices and processes and so much of the surrounding culture stands little changed over decades.
I believe if we put Specials at the heart of policing reform, if we developed a new ‘science’ around ‘what works’ across police volunteering, if we significantly drove up the scale and we also embraced the new and big ideas across this agenda, then and only then PCCs like myself could be appropriately seen as being ‘radical’ reformers.
Whether that radicalism is ‘too ambitious’ to take root across the police profession only time will tell.