Volunteer police constables are being used to “fill the void” created by austerity cuts to emergency services, it has been claimed.
A number of police forces across the UK are advertising for more special constables to help fight crime, including within major crimes units dealing with murders and sexual assaults.
Essex Police are the latest to come under fire after a recruitment drive calling for civilians to come forward for the unpaid roles, which will see successful applicants serve alongside full-time paid police officers.
The role of special constables has been described as a “ray of light” in times of austerity and “chronic underfunding” by Steve Taylor, chair of the Essex Police Federation.
He said: “It isn’t a question of taking a job over from a regular officer, it’s supporting busy roles regular officers have to do.”
An anonymous Twitter user, who claims to be a special constable, defended the measure and wrote: “Essex Police are surely just offering special constable ‘specialisms’ within those crime investigation depts.
“Not like they’re asking local vicar to ‘pop down to the murder we can’t get to’ (Also, Essex lowest budget per population I believe).”
However, Essex Labour councillor Michael Lilley was one of a number of officials to criticise the recruitment drive, describing it as “the first step by this Tory government in privatising the police service”.
He told HuffPost UK: “Using volunteers to fill the void left by the austerity cuts, is not the way to put the public’s confidence back in the way that serious crime is investigated.
“Even though special constables are brilliant at policing and they are helping making a difference, I feel this is a step too far.
“If a crime needs a detective then does that mean police have to ring up volunteers to see if they can come in and help work on a case?”
Lilley added that Essex police is one of the lowest funded country, despite having one of the biggest counties. “You cannot blame the Essex Police for doing whatever it takes to help solve crime but it needs government funding to replace the 600 officers the service lost since 2010,” he said.
Councillor Dave Harris said: “I think it is disgraceful. Detectives should be trained to a high standard.
“It all comes down to cuts, it is disgusting – that thin blue line has become even thinner. My residents are sick to their back teeth of calling police and there being no one there to answer.”
However, the force’s assistant chief constable, Nick Downing, said the move was “not about policing on the cheap or lowering the status of detectives.”
He defended the move, saying: “I am very proud of the outstanding work that our detectives do and they are an integral part of our workforce, investigating the most serious, complex and harrowing of crimes.
“Special constables are also a key part of our policing family. The recruitment of Special constables offers people a fantastic opportunity to experience life on the frontline without making the commitment to joining as a full-time regular.”
Other forces are also recruiting volunteers, including West Midlands, North Yorkshire, Kent and the Metropolitan Police.
On the Met’s site, it outlines the unpredictable and hazardous nature of the role.
“Each time you sign on, you could find yourself involved in anything from responding to 999 emergency calls to going out on patrol, making house-to-house enquiries or presenting evidence in court,” it reads.
Special constables are also advised of their eligibility to apply for criminal injuries compensation for injuries received on duty.
To successfully occupy this position, the candidate must first pass competency and fitness tests and then a thorough vetting process will begin.
Once cleared, 20 days of classroom based training must be completed before beginning.
Essex Police currently has the fastest growing Special Constabulary in England and Wales. Its current number of officers stands at 3,019, latest figures show – 475 of which are special constables.