Last month, Essex Police announced it was creating two new volunteer roles within its special constabulary to work on serious crimes. Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth about the involvement of volunteers in the police.
According to coverage in the Daily Mirror, Essex councillor Dave Harris said: "I think it is disgraceful. Detectives should be trained to a high standard."
The Mirror also quoted "local solicitor" Laura Austin: "It’s most concerning that unpaid and possibly untrained volunteers are being sought to work in an area where the highest standards of investigatory techniques are required."
And commenting in Third Sector, the chair of Barking & Dagenham Council for Voluntary Service, implied that volunteer involvement like this might make policing less reliable. Yes, a volunteer holding a voluntary sector governance role (where reliability is important) is questioning the reliability of volunteers!
Here we go again: a story about volunteers doing something meaningful in society being met with derision, ignorance and prejudice. Let me address these remarks in turn.
First, Councillor Harris and his delightful implication that, because these specials are volunteers, they will be at worse untrained or at best trained to a lower standard than paid police officers.
According to Essex police, these new volunteers will "undergo the same training course that all Special Constables complete and will continue your training alongside detectives in our Major Crime Unit and our Serious Economic Crime Unit with our Serious Crime Directorate", and will work alongside serving detectives.
So why the concern, councillor Harris? I mean, it’s not like anyone can stand for local government office and have responsibility for essential community services after probably undergoing far less rigorous training than these specials volunteers will have.
Second, solicitor Laura Austin. Point one: how much someone is paid has no bearing on their competence.
Lifeboat crews are all volunteers, but I doubt Ms Austin would query their competence in a life-and-death situation were she to get into trouble at sea.
Point two: yes, high standards of investigatory technique will be required of these volunteers, so it’s unfortunate that there are no other policing bodies with any similar volunteering experience to demonstrate the value volunteers can add. Oh, except for the National Crime Agency, which has been involving volunteers in its investigations for nine years.
Finally, our friend the chair of a Council for Voluntary Service. Why exactly would serious crime directorate specials making policing less reliable? Given the number of special constables deployed in UK police forces and the significant contribution they make to policing, I can see no reason why this additional deployment in Essex would make policing any less reliable.
I at least take hope from the headline in the Daily Mirror story: "Cash-strapped police sign up 'Miss Marple volunteers' to solve rapes and murders". If memory serves, Miss Marple was a rather excellent (fictional) detective who solved many a serious crime that had baffled the cops. I’m looking forward to Essex Police proving this to be true in the real world as its Serious Crime Directorate Specials make an impact and prove these naysayers wrong.
Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant