October 2, 2007 in Politics


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The emergency services in the UK seem to be risk adverse. Case in point, two officers see a child struggling in a lake and they stand back and do nothing. The child is eventually fished out of the water having drowned. Thus, those two officers should be ashamed of themselves. To take no action is unconscionable.

Why giving the “plastic police” more powers could make them less effective
Sep 27th 2007, From The Economist print edition
ONE of the loudest cheers at the Labour Party conference this week went to John Smeaton, the baggage handler whose well-timed flying kick helped thwart a terrorist attack on Glasgow airport in June. Risking such peril made him the sort of “have-a-go hero” that Jack Straw, the justice secretary, wants to encourage by easing self-defence laws. A fans’website has already raised enough money to buy him 1,400 thank-you pints of beer.
Alas, not everyone can be blessed with Smeaton-like courage. On September 21st Greater Manchester Police found itself defending two junior officers who remained on the edge of a lake after a boy disappeared beneath its surface. The ten-year-old, whose body was eventually fished out by his stepfather and another policeman, may in fact have died before the officers arrived. But the lame official excuse that the timid officers were “not trained in this type of rescue” raised hackles.

A fundamentalist reading of health-and-safety rules may be the real culprit; it caused the same force to ban coppers from riding bicycles. But attention has focused on the lakeside officers themselves, who were not “proper” policemen but community-support officers (CSOs), a lightly-trained, lower-paid variety introduced in 2002 to make a show of force on the streets. The wretched incident fitted the caricature of CSOs as inexperienced and powerless. As young as 16 and trained for only four weeks, the “plastic police”, as detractors call them, cannot make arrests, carry out stop-and-searches (except, oddly, on potential terrorists) or do much other basic police work. The Police Federation, which represents ordinary officers, sees them as a threat to jobs and wants rid of them; the Tories call them a cheap alternative to real bobbies.
When it came to office, Labour did indeed allow police numbers to decline. This did not seem to affect crime rates, which fell, but it upset the public, who began to think crime was worsening. It was not long before this worry, along with Tory attacks and a hysterical press, forced Labour to ramp up recruitment: from 2000 to 2005 police ranks swelled by 17,000, and since 2002 CSOs have meant another 16,000 uniforms on the streets.
The cost of CSOs is part of their official appeal: paid £16,000 a year, they are a bargain compared with £20,000 police constables. Hiring low-skilled staff for everyday plodding is not confined to the police: in schools, for example, the number of teaching assistants has grown far faster than the number of teachers.
But CSOs have other strong points too. Because they have few powers, commanders have to let them get on with pounding the streets, which ordinary constables cannot do for ten minutes before being called away to a crisis. “It has created a type of officer that cannot be pulled hither and thither,” says Adam Crawford of Leeds University. Traditional patrolling pays dividends—in gathering intelligence, for example—which may not count directly towards official targets but has value.
Beefing up CSOs’ powers, as some propose, could spoil this: the more they can do, the more they risk being dragged away from their beats. Mr Crawford reckons that “mission drift”, away from patrolling and towards enforcement, is already underway: the range of fixed-penalty notices CSOs can hand out to anti-social yobs grows every year. In December many optional powers are to be made compulsory. Those who despair at current limitations may cheer. But the more powerful CSOs get, the more they are likely to serve as weedy substitutes for real police. And that will leave the mean streets meaner still.

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