University of Dundee University of Dundee
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3 March 2014

Consistency and support required to help achieve potential of neighbourhood policing

Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) have a vital role to play in keeping neighbourhoods safe and improving confidence in policing but need to be fully valued and supported by police forces in order for them to do so, according to a new report from the University of Dundee.

Dr Megan O'Neill, a researcher in Scottish Institute of Policing Research based at Dundee, has compiled a report on the role and effectiveness of PCSOs having spent six months conducting research with Neighbourhood Policing Teams (NPTs) in the North of England. This research was funded as a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship.

Although PCSOs have made significant strides since the role was introduced twelve years ago, Dr O'Neill says that the role was undermined from the outset by an organisational culture that values action and enforcement above community engagement and that this continues to be the case to some extent.

In particular, she found that the efforts of PCSOs were sometimes being hampered by an inconsistency in the powers allocated to them by different Chief Constables and by them being abstracted from their beats to fill shortages elsewhere, negating work carried out by PCSOs to build relationships with the local community.

In her report, Dr O'Neill recommended that there be a greater degree of consistency in terms of the powers allocated to PCSOs, meaning fewer 'optional' powers open to the Chief Constable's discretion, or potentially none at all. If PCSOs were enabled to use all of the powers currently authorised by the legislation, she continued, local practice would dictate which were used most often.

In addition, efforts should be made to not abstract PCSOs from their beats to avoid undermining the purpose of the role and damaging the social capital-building efforts in their beat areas.

'I believe that the work of PCSOs is vital to the successful continuation of Neighbourhood Policing and thereby confidence in policing generally,' said Dr O'Neill. 'Efforts should be made to retain PCSO numbers in the current challenging economic climate as to reduce or remove PCSOs from their beats would do significant damage to the relationship between a police force and its communities. This relationship is also vital to maintain to develop crime prevention and intelligence gathering in a force.

'My research suggests that PCSOs can be of great benefit to community policing, especially if they are in a well-integrated Neighbourhood Policing Team and are treated as equal members of that team. PCSOs have a great deal to offer the communities in their neighbourhood areas but their role has been undermined by the organisation from the beginning and continues to be in some respects.

'PCSOs are involved in a myriad of activities but some of their managers still do not fully understand the range of tasks they can perform, leaving PCSOs frustrated and unchallenged. This is exacerbated by the inconsistency between police forces in terms of the range of powers PCSOs have due to the 'optional' powers which chief constables can confer. Allowing all PCSOs access to all the currently available powers would be preferable.

'Knowing their beats and the people in them well is what makes PCSOs most effective and best able to assist in crime prevention and community engagement. However, the research showed that PCSOs are easy targets for abstraction to other beat areas when numbers were low or a special operation was on. While this can be a help to short-term work, it undermines the long-term social capital building that PCSOs need to do, and can damage community relationships.'

Dr O'Neill made a further 13 recommendations relating to training, responsibilities, career development and review, recruitment, and engagement to ensure that PCSOs can most effectively support and protect communities.

Trust within the local community was shown to be crucial to the work of PCSOs and they must be supported and encouraged to build up contacts to not only to help solve problems for individuals, but also to find solutions to community issues.

As PCSOs generally have more time to spend with local people than their police officer counterparts they have the opportunity to develop an awareness of personal connections between people in the community, and the local history of an area in relation to crime, anti-social behaviour, and environmental conditions, Dr O'Neill added.

The role of PCSO does not exist in Scotland, which opted for a model of community wardens, employed by local authorities. However, the emphasis in Dr O'Neill's report on enabling community engagement and building social capital between residents and staff will have relevance for the Scottish context.

The full report can be found at:

Also see it listed at

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