As Cuts Bite Police Forces Shore Up the Front Line with a ‘Dad’s Army’ of Police Support Volunteers

By Karen Bullock

For the police service, as for other public sector organisations, a primary question since 2010 has been how to maintain levels of service as deep funding cuts start to bite. The public sector union Unison has recently drawn attention to how police services across England and Wales are quietly retaining volunteers to perform key roles once performed by salaried staff (Unison, 2014). They question the implications of replacing paid police employees with volunteers, especially where volunteering spills over into areas that were previously the preserve of directly employed, highly trained, vetted and skilled police employees and argue, rightly in my view, that this has not been the subject of public debate or scrutiny (Unison, 2014).

I have become interested in the evolution of volunteering within police services and the matter is at the heart of my recent book: Citizens, Community and Crime Control (Palgrave, 2014). The idea that there is a role for volunteers within police services is far from new. Special Constables – uniformed volunteers with full police powers – have been retained by police services since the mid-19th century (at least). Traditionally providing a ‘reserve’ to bolster police strength at times of emergency, today special constables supplement and reinforce day-to-day police work in wide-ranging ways. Many of us support police services through membership of Neighbourhood Watch. Forming ‘the eyes and ears of the police’ watches have proliferated across the country since the 1980s.

The volunteers that Unison focus their attention on – Police Support Volunteers (PSVs) – are a relatively new addition to the policing family. PSV programmes have been evident in police services since the early 1990s. However, they have grown in strength quickly. There may be as many as 9,000 PSVs within constabularies in England and Wales, a figure which has doubled in less than ten years and is likely to increase. Unison illuminates the sheer range of police functions that volunteers conduct in contemporary times. These include activities as diverse as staffing receptions, serving in bars and restaurants, conducting research, assisting with the care and training of animals, valeting cars and operating closed circuit television (CCTV), providing administrative support to all areas of constabularies (including offender management and major enquiry teams), assisting forensics departments (carrying out fingerprint techniques, repackaging exhibits after testing), attending scenes of crimes (to provide reassurance to victims, undertake crime scene examinations and provide crime prevention advice) and providing a uniformed presence at events to support community policing teams.

Volunteers bolster the strength of constabularies and as such have come to be seen as an important resource at the present time. It is quite clear that PSVs are conducting roles that go well to the heart of what is conventionally understood as ‘front line’ policing and has conventionally been provided by salaried staff, that volunteers have access to sensitive information and that they represent constabularies in wide ranging ways. All of this ought to provoke questions about the quality of the work they produce for police services and the implications for salaried positions in the service.

My research on PSVs has started to do so. In considering the former I have looked at how PSVs are deployed, the arrangements for their training and the nature of their supervision and management. I have found that whilst would be PSVs are vetted, they receive little training, have minimal access to line management and receive little feedback or support. The position of the PSV is informal and the organisation cannot require them to perform certain duties, must allow them autonomy to determine the hours they work and they are not bound by ordinary disciplinary mechanisms. In short, the police organisation has limited authority over the PSV. My research suggests that the boundaries between the roles and responsibilities of volunteers and professionals can become blurred and that there may be confusion about the status of PSVs and the roles that they can conduct both amongst citizens and within the organisation.

In respect to the latter, it is increasingly becoming clear at that volunteers are being used to plug gaps left by force reorganisations and redundancy. Indeed, my research indicates how the widespread deployment of volunteers is simply a pragmatic response to the economic reality. ‘It’s all about cutbacks,’ one of my respondents stated, ‘volunteers make it so much easier’. Indeed, they must do. We need to engage with this position critically. It is not surprising that public sector unions are concerned about the impact for salaried positions and for their individual members. Certainly my research reveals that salaried staff do express concerns about the deployment of PSV in the context of funding cuts which shapes whether they are prepared to accept their incorporation into the organisation. In fact, my research reveals that PSVs themselves also express anxieties that they are displacing paid positions or even replacing members of salaried staff who have been made redundant. They are aware that this might come to influence the nature of the relationship between volunteers and other members of the organisation. Working for free it is important volunteers feel integrated into the organisations that they work in and accepted by them. If they don’t they are unlikely to be retained by the organisation for long.

The rise of the volunteer within police services has occurred rapidly. Whilst there might be benefits for police services and the citizens that they represent, this is not without risk.  Certainly we need to be asking questions. Most clearly we should be asking questions about the implications for the delivery of effective police services. We should also be asking questions about the nature of the management of volunteers, their integration into the service and the implications for salaried staff.



Bullock, K. (2014) Citizens, Community and Crime Control. Basingstoke. Palgrave McMillan.

Unison (2014) Home Guard of Police Support Volunteers to Fill in For Staff Cuts. London: Unison.


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