'The public are the police and the police are the public' – could you join the Special Constabulary?
PUBLISHED: 20:00 13 February 2017
A voluntary branch of Avon and Somerset Constabulary has had a huge impact on policing in the district, with more officers patrolling the streets and ensuring the safety of residents.
The Special Constabulary works side by side with police officers on a day-to-day basis. Mercury reporter Eleanor Young went on a ride-along with two members of the Special Constabulary to find out what they get up to on a shift.
The Special Constabulary has been around since 1831 and has 64 people working in North Somerset alone.
The specials are people just like you and I, who give up a few hours a week to patrol the streets and help keep people safe.
Specials co-ordinator Katie Hancock said: “They are the link between the community and the police. The public are the police and the police are the public.”
This branch of the constabulary has the same powers as a police constable, and sees specials go through a six-month training process before taking to the streets.
The Special Constabulary counts people from all walks of life among its number, and each brings their own skills and knowledge to the job.
Volunteers are asked to work a minimum of 16 hours a month. Last year, they collectively put in more than 10,000 hours of work in North Somerset, helping to keep the community safe.
THE RIDE-ALONG I was invited out with Special Sergeant Tony Harris and Special Constable James Fowler.
We spent a 10-hour shift around North Somerset where I got the opportunity to see what it means to be part of the Special Constabulary.
I observed the pair throughout the evening and had a real insight into the fantastic work these people do day in, day out.
My first taste of what it means to be part of the Special Constabulary came at a 5pm briefing at Weston Police Station in Walliscote Grove Road.
These are held at the beginning of every shift. In this case it was led by Duty Inspector Jason Shears and Duty Sergeant Jason Roberts.
We were issued with call signs for the shift and the radio channels we would operate on.
We then went through the profiles of wanted people and open cases. Officers were given areas which needed to be patrolled and details of cars to look out for.
After the briefing we were kitted up and set off for the long shift ahead.
Within minutes of climbing into the police car, we were called to our first incident; a man in his 20s had absconded from a mental health care facility in Weston.
We were give a description of the man, what he was wearing and where he was last seen over the radio, before being asked to tour the area to help find the man as a matter of urgency.
After about 10 minutes of checking streets near the home, we learned over the radio the man had previously escaped and caught a bus to Weston Railway Station.
Sp Sgt Harris said, in these circumstances, the force uses a decision-making model to evaluate a situation, how to approach it and what possible outcomes could occur.
He added: “This tool is simple but very effective model where we encourage ourselves to forward-think on the incident and contemplate what might await us at any time.
“We consider our code of ethics, risk to ourselves and others, professionalism and our policing powers.”
When we arrived at the station, we checked both platforms, the waiting area and a waiting train. Sp Sgt Harris and Sp Con Fowler also spoke to station staff and, once satisfied the man was not at the station, we continued our search.
We were then informed the man had been spotted near Tesco, in Station Road.
We spoke to the store’s security guard and learned a man matching his description had cut through the store’s entrance.
With this new information, we headed into town and spotted the man outside a nearby bar.
Sp Sgt Harris said: “We approached him in a calm and understanding manner.
“Mental health incidents need to be handled with patience and sensitivity. He matched our description perfectly, but refused to identify himself as the male we were looking for.”
After a long talk, Sp Sgt Harris radioed in to say we had found the man. Regular officers, who would deal with his return, were called to collect him.
Sp Sgt Harris said: “On this occasion we were able to carry out area tours immediately, allowing our regular colleagues to continue with their day-to-day crime loads and current work.”
During briefing, Sp Sgt Harris and Sp Con Fowler had been asked to carry out high-visibility reassurance patrols around Pollard Road, where a woman was stabbed on February 2.
Sp Sgt Harris said: “The reason for this patrol was to reassure residents the force was actively involved in enquiries and willing to support areas affected by recent crime.”
Next we were to complete some anti-burglary patrols, during which the Special Constabulary must be vigilant for all offences.
We approached a commercial estate where Sp Sgt Harris had spent two shifts collecting intelligence on the building and, with the support of regular officers and his Duty Sergeant, discovered a cannabis farm.
He said: “This was a positive result for our proactive patrols and highlights effective team work between us and regular officers.”
We spotted a car leaving the estate and decided to pull it over to speak with the occupants.
Sp Sgt Harris recognised a man in the back seat as someone who had been arrested in connection with the cannabis farming.
After speaking to him, Sp Sgt Harris was satisfied no further offences were being committed, and cleared the man to continue on his way.
In autumn last year, Chief Inspector Tina Robinson asked North Somerset Specials to provide high-visibility patrols in areas affected by burglaries.
Sp Sgt Harris said he had since spent many shifts out patrolling.
He said: “I have a strong belief that special constables should be confident, capable and committed in being able to undertake independent tasks while operating alongside our regular colleagues.
“We provide reassurance for vulnerable properties; we engage with residents, provide education and gather intelligence.
“We also regularly meet with Neighbourhood Watch members and addresses concerns as best we can.”
Sp Sgt Harris said the patrols are an effective way for specials to work independently.
He added: “My own vision for the anti-burglary patrols is to provide a cornerstone for progression of the North Somerset Special Constabulary.
“Not only can we use these patrols for their intended use in providing high-visibility reassurance to the community and a deterrent for opportunist criminals, but to show our regular colleagues we can be a confident, capable and committed resource which can be deployed independently.”
Sp Sgt Harris and Sp Con Fowler took me to police HQ in Portishead to see the specials’ training centre and visit the communications department.
We were greeted by comms supervisor Steve Smith who talked me through how the department worked.
I was shown the call system, which helps supervisors monitor how many calls they have coming in, and availability of people to take the calls, dispatch units and log incidents.
We met two officers who were covering North Somerset and in charge of deciding which units would attend each incident.
As we headed back to Weston, we drove through Nailsea and spotted a group of youngsters who looked suspicious.
Sp Con Fowler said there had been a lot of antisocial behaviour problems in the area.
He explained: “We started by just asking them what they were doing, where they were going and doing a general welfare check.
“We explained why we were in the area, tackling antisocial behaviour as part of a community action plan and we asked if they had any alcohol on them.”
The youngsters, who were all underage, admitted to having cans of beer in their bags, which the two specials seized and disposed of.
Sp Sgt Harris said: “Following this incident, three other youths were spotted and we called them over for a similar conversation and during these enquiries, one of the males disclosed possession of alcohol and cannabis.”
The confiscated alcohol was poured away and the cannabis logged in the police station’s detained property room for testing.
Sp Con Fowler, who has been with the Special Constabulary for more than a year, took the wheel and was on the lookout for traffic violators.
Within a few minutes, we spotted a driver without a seatbelt on.
Sp Sgt Harris left Sp Con Fowler to deal with the offender, using it as an opportunity to test his colleague.
He explained: “During patrols I will always look to test my crew mate for areas where I think they might need experience or to reaffirm their confidence in their own ability.
“I certainly hope my colleagues, whether they are special constables or regular officers, will look to provide opportunities for me to test my ability and allow me to learn from their experience and skill.”
After a short break we were back on the road again and within minutes spotted a car with a broken rear light.
When the pair approached the car they identified a strong smell of cannabis coming from within.
The driver was asked to exit the vehicle to complete a roadside drug test, which involved running a swab around his mouth.
While waiting for the test results, Sp Con Fowler searched the car for signs of any drugs.
The test and search both came back negative and the officers took down the driver’s details and warned him about drug-driving before sending him on his way.
As the shift drew to a close, I began to realise j how tired I was.
The excitement of the last eight hours had kept me going and we were now sat in Weston Police Station filing evidence we had collected during the shift.
Sp Sgt Harris radioed in to sign off for the evening, and we were heading home.
HOW DO SPECIALS DIFFER FROM THE REGULAR POLICE?
The simple answer, there is no difference.
With the same policing powers and training available to move through the ranks and further develop skills, such as emergency driving, the only thing holding you back as a special is your own motivation.
Sp Sgt Harris said: “To be accepted into the police community is rewarding, there are strong bonds and friendships within.
“The support you receive from colleagues and supervisors is not like anything else I have known.
“Their working relationships and friendships are built on a mutual trust and respect which is proved and earned.”
HOW DO I GET INVOLVED? The Special Constabulary is looking for new recruits to join the team.
If you have at least four hours a week spare, can stay calm in a crisis, communicate clearly and work well with a team, then get in touch.
Read the full story in this week’s Mercury.