It takes a special kind of man or woman to want to stand shoulder to shoulder with our police ... and not get paid a penny for it bar expenses.
That’s a special constable for you. They are needed now more than ever, in light of civil unrest plaguing peace of mind and stretching regular police resources.
Specials don’t serve on the frontline. They reinforce regulars and paid support officers, effectively freeing paid police for pressing duties, ensuring others don’t slip through society’s safety net, while salaried staff are busy elsewhere.
Locally, you’ll find them manning summer galas, the Lights switch-on, or whenever crowds gather, whether for football or, as an extreme example, rallies such as the recent English Defence League protest in Blackpool.
Police chiefs are not prepared to talk about specials in the context of the riots seen in London and Manchester.
Nor indeed discuss how they would deal with such riots, or the potential for such, if push came to shove.
The official line is: “A force-wide operation is in place to ensure the situation remains under close watch and that resources are readily available should they be needed. Criminality and violence will not be tolerated in the county.”
But what is certain is having more specials available behind the scenes frees officers for the heavy duty stuff.
The push to boost numbers, and restructure the special constabulary along similar command, and training, lines to regulars, came ahead of shameful scenes which shook confidence in police as a force, rather than a service.
The specials are definitely here to serve.
Eleven inspectors have been appointed to oversee the constabulary’s 443 special constables and sergeants operationally, in partnership with police chiefs such as western division’s commander, Chief Superintendent Richard Debicki.
“I really rate the specials and support their use,” the chief super admits. “It’s additional support at times of greatest need, Friday and Saturday nights, providing that resilience and visibility and support for staff, and making the public not only feel safer, but be safer.
“Most are drawn from the local area, which not only makes sense, and is practical, but means they have real commitment to the communities they help us serve.
“They share the same powers, have the same uniform, the same training as regular officers, but come as unpaid volunteers.
“You can’t put a price on that level of commitment and the additional skills it brings, for volunteers have different motivations, and bring a real sense of service and achievement.”
In western division, which covers Blackpool and the Fylde, the task of overseeing 60 specials falls to special inspectors Andy Smith and Sonya Boden, with northern division counterpart Ruth Gardner overseeing Wyre, Lancaster and Morecambe. All three, along with those they supervise, give time and expertise free. No bounty paid, although some forces elsewhere have called for such. Insp Smith admits: “I think it would undermine the ethos.”
That attitude gladdens hearts of police chiefs balancing books in the delicate equation between keeping local police stations open or taking bobbies out of service and off the streets.
Rank and file officers, as well as chief constables, are now pressing the Government for a rethink in light of recent events.
The restructure saw Nigel Walters appointed chief officer and Paul Airlie deputy this year. Training is like for like, bar firearms, dog handling and traffic police roles.
Specials go on general patrol, special exercises, assist at switch-on and many of Blackpool’s 300 planned events, police matches, road traffic accidents, demonstrations, as well as leading operations themselves.
Insp Smith joined at 18. “That’s more than half a lifetime ago. I was working for British Aerospace as an apprentice but was made redundant at 22. I got a casual job at the civil service and have been there for 22 years.
“Most employers are very accommodating. They are obliged to give you the time off, but not pay you, but many give you extra leave for special duties. I get an additional 18 to 20 days for special duties, but work on average 500 hours a year.
“It’s brilliant. Training’s improved no end. We used to have to fight hard to get it.
“The way we deal with people hasn’t changed, we’re there to serve, give something back, but regulars are more appreciative today, there was a slight them and us when I started, but a lot of regulars are now ex-specials.
“The public make no distinction. We do the same role, have the same powers, wear the same uniform, carry the same equipment, get called to court, manage conflict. Robert Peel said the police are the public and the public are the police. I like to think we embody that ethos.”
n To learn more about the Special Constabulary call (01772) 412128.