Every month I receive a report about the work of the Special Constables.
These are police officers – fully trained and with all the powers of a constable – who have jobs and careers outside policing but volunteer to help South Yorkshire Police for a minimum number of agreed hours per week. In one district for November, the average was 34 hours. There are currently 87 officers altogether: Barnsley has 13, Doncaster 12, Sheffield 15, and Rotherham 23.
Most of us are probably aware of Specials on duty at football matches or Remembrance commemorations, but they do, in fact, work alongside officers in many other areas of day-to-day policing. Because of their day job, some have expertise that they can offer as a Special. Last month, Specials gave 1,739 hours of unpaid work across the county. They attended 228 incidents, went out with neighbourhood teams on 79 occasions and 49 times with response officers. They were involved in 33 traffic stops and went to 11 domestic incidents. They also conducted five drone deployments. And they made arrests.
When the King and Queen Consort visited Doncaster to grant city-status, Specials were out in force. Last Friday – ‘Mad Friday’ – in Barnsley, they were in a Special Constabulary Public Order Van in the town centre. So far in 2022 they have given 26,577 hours over 4,278 duties.
This is a very impressive record and I for one am most grateful for what they do. But we need more of them! In past years, numbers of Specials have been much higher.
From time to time I meet people who say they would like to help the police or even be a Special, but wonder whether they have anything to give or feel they might be too young or too old to volunteer. If you know anyone who has said anything like this to you, I would urge you to encourage them to get in touch. This is just the right time! The force is currently recruiting with new courses planned for March and August 2023.
Stainforth’s Day of Action
I went to Stainforth last week to meet officers in the neighbourhood team. They were having a Day of Action together with other police and colleagues from partner organisations. I joined the local Sergeant and a Superintendent from headquarters at the community centre, where volunteers had just finished packing Christmas food parcels. We walked to the nearby Asda supermarket where the police had a stall along with colleagues from Doncaster MBC. As we walked we spoke about the difference the new neighbourhood team was beginning to make to policing Stainforth.
It was bitterly cold. I admired the fortitude of those who were on the stall for two hours answering queries from passing members of the public.
During the day there was a very noticeable police presence in the town as officers on foot and in car went about their various activities. As I left, I saw four members of the off-road biking team arriving. It raised for me, however, the question of police visibility and what we understand by it. We are currently consulting people about what they would like to see the police prioritising in the coming year (if you haven’t already completed the survey, you can do so by clicking here. If this year’s consultation is like last year’s, I expect to see in the free comment box many people asking for ‘greater police visibility’. But what would this be? What do people mean when they ask for more visible policing?
Just before Covid, I joined some officers at a pop-up stall outside a community centre in one of our smaller towns. A woman came up to me and said, ‘We never see the police around here.’ I pointed to the sergeant, the two PCs and the PCSO. She was not impressed. ‘They’re only here because you’re here.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m here because they’re here.’ I had been briefed before going and so knew something of the police activity in the area in the previous few weeks. I told her what the police had been doing. She was even less impressed. ‘Yes, but they’re in police cars,’ she said scornfully. That apparently, did not count as ‘visible policing’.
I often think about that encounter, and did so while in Stainforth. There was a lot of police activity that day and I hope many people realised this. The police certainly did everything they could to advertise their presence and they have a very conscientious and determined local team who know the area well. But if you never left your house – it was very cold – or were at work or out of town, however visible the police were, they would not be visible to you.
There are, of course, other ways in which the police are ‘visible’ – on the internet and social media. People can sign up for SYP Alerts, to be kept informed about activity in their area. Most neighbourhood teams put out regular newsletters and plan engagement events when they spend time at a supermarket or community building meeting people.
So when people ask for ‘greater visibility’ what are they asking for?
It all seems to come down to a matter of perception rather than anything that can be quantified. Perception is not necessarily based on reality – hence my fruitless conversation with the woman at the supermarket. I have this nagging suspicion that ‘visibility’ for her – and perhaps for all those who want more of it – means being able to see an officer in a yellow jacket down her street every week if not every day, each morning. That, of course, would require all the police in the country to be on the streets of South Yorkshire – and then some.
You could double the number of patrols, engagement events and Days of Action, but unless you can shift perceptions people will still want ‘more visibility’. Perhaps that will come over time, especially as the number of officers increases over the next few years and as the new recruits attain full operational competency and begin to appear in response and neighbourhood teams. But I think we also need to do some educational work around what is reasonable to expect.
Addressing Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG)
At the end of November, the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) held a virtual meeting for all those organisations across South Yorkshire, statutory and voluntary, who are supporting aspects of this huge national agenda – tackling violence against women and girls. We heard a number of presentations about what is happening in the county with examples of good practice and good partnership working. It was also an opportunity to see where there might be duplication of effort and also, and perhaps more urgently, where there might be gaps and challenges.
Among the many presentations I note just one: the Amber Project in Doncaster, called Changing Lives. They support (mainly) women who are caught up in sex work or are/have been sexually exploited. They had captured the voices of some of the women. Their words showed only too clearly how they came to be where they were, the connection between drugs and prostitution, and why they find it so hard to change their lives:
“I got abused from a little girl, took drugs to forget about it. I then needed to make money to fund my habit. I thought it’s the only thing I am good at and was used to, my body being used, so I did sex work.”
“I was trafficked when I was 13 years old. I saw my mum sex working so I thought it was normal to have sex with people. I thought everyone did it. To mask all the rapes, violence and the stuff I had done, I started taking drugs. I did sex work to fund it.”
Why didn’t they report physical and sexual abuse?
“No point they think you are scum anyway.”
“I’ve got used to it, it’s what happens.”
“I didn’t follow it through because he was threatening me. I didn’t feel safe enough to continue.”
Like other voluntary bodies, if the Amber Project workers are to help those who look to them, they need consistency of staff to develop professional and trusting relationships. But so many of our local groups are struggling at the moment to find that longer-term funding.
Christmas and New Year Greetings
This is the last blog I shall write before Christmas and the New Year. I hope you drive carefully and travel safely over this period. I am sure you will be thankful to the police and all in the emergency services who will be working over the festive period to keep us safe.
It grieves me that the year is coming to an end with so many in our public services feeling that they are not valued and with many having to resort to food banks to make ends meet, including police officers. I hope the New Year will offer us all a moment to re-set all these broken aspects of our life together.
Happy Christmas and New Year.