Do Something That Is out of the Ordinary ; Better Training, More Respect and Job Satisfaction - Special Constables Are Really Making an Impact in Their Local Communities, Says KATE HILPERN
Hilpern, Kate, The Independent (London, England)
Almost immediately after the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York, the area of Wandsworth in South London began to suffer. "There is a high Asian population in this area and racial attacks on local Muslims, as well as Sikhs and Hindus, quickly became prevalent," explains Fred Ahmed, a 44-year-old police constable. "Many were spat and sworn at and some were attacked. As fear for public safety grew, some women stopped going to the shops and many children stopped going to school. We had a crisis."
It was the commitment and sheer hard work of people such as Mr Ahmed that was largely responsible not only for Wandsworth getting back to normal but for improving relations between the police and local community in the long-term. And yet Mr Ahmed is not a paid member of the police service. He is a manager at a computer firm, and a volunteer - a "special constable" - in his spare time.
"As a special constable, I'm expected to contribute at least four hours of my spare time to the local police service each week," he says. "Mind you, I choose to give much more - particularly since 11 September."
His first step during that time was to help ensure the streets were patrolled, as a reassurance to the public. "Then I helped set up a `police shop' in the local Islamic centre where, for two hours every Saturday, we give out crime prevention advice and take reports about racial incidents. We hoped for about five customers per week, but we've had about 2,500 people through our doors during the last year and Wandsworth has become a much safer, happier place."
Over recent years, there has been recognition that volunteering has the potential to be a much more powerful force for social change. In fact, the Home Secretary regards volunteering as one of the most important aspects of active citizenship and in building a safe, just and tolerant society. "As such," says Jan Berry, chair of the Police Federation, "much work has been done to make special constabulary teams increasingly professional. As an organisation that has had concerns in the past that the specials were not skilled to the level they should be, we have welcomed the move and embraced the specials as part of the police family."
Special constabulary teams date back to Norman times, but the biggest changes in their powers have happened just recently, agrees John Barrendell, chief officer of the Metro-politan Special Constabulary. "Specials used to be seen as concerned citizens helping out with menial police duties. Today, they have an excellent relationship with regular officers, and have the same uniform, powers and equipment."
Indeed, while the only way you can tell a special apart from a regular officer today is by the small initials "SC" around the shoulder area, their uniforms used to differ extensively. Coupled with the fact that the powers of specials used to be very limited - and they were treated as less than professional by many regular officers - members of the public often felt inclined not to take them particularly seriously. "This is no longer the case," says Mr Barrendell.
Initial training for special constables is also more comprehensive. "While regular officers train for 18 weeks, Monday to Friday, specials train for 18 weeks on Sundays only," says Mr Barrendell. "The bits they miss are things like the technical reporting of road traffic accidents. So specials would learn enough to do first aid and initial activities on such a scene, but wouldn't, for example, carry out investigations of accidents."
Aiden Close, a 38-year-old special constable, says: "Because our training was an abbreviated course compared to the regulars, we were expected to do quite a bit of self-study. But because this was something I really wanted to do, I found myself willing to put in the time and effort and didn't mind spending the odd Saturday night reading up on burglary. …