The Auxiliary and the Special Constabulary: A Brief Look at Canadian and British Models of Volunteering in Policing

By Dr Laura Knight

Steve Molyneaux (Superintendent), Mark Saunders (Chief of Police), Dr Laura Knight, Ken Jeffers (Police Services Board Member)


Frank Fernandes has led the Toronto Auxiliary Service for several years at the rank of Superintendent, having been an Auxiliary Officer since 1971. As members of the international Volunteer Law Enforcement Officer Alliance, Frank and I met in Dallas, Texas, last year, where we met US police reserves and volunteers and participated in their training events and observed policing duties. The level of investment in police training was positive and the widespread public support for police officers felt noticeably different to the UK. We recognised that a lot of that support was driven by an understanding of the risks American police officers face every day in relation to gun crime in particular – where 44 police officers were shot and killed on duty last year.

Last week I spent a couple of days with Frank and the Toronto Police Service, visiting the headquarters, special operation command unit, the marine unit, the training college, one of the districts and attended a victim services event. I also attended the International Hate Studies Network conference in Oshawa, where I met officers from surrounding police services and the Ontario Police College.

Whilst Canadian police officers carry a firearm, they are rarely deployed (there was an average of 19 police shooting deaths per year between 2000 and 2017) and they are currently rolling out Taser to reduce the use of firearms even further. The Canadian model of policing is based on the British model, and I heard the Robert Peel phrase ‘the public are the police and the police are the public’ several times during my visit, emphasising the importance of building and maintaining positive relations with communities.

Differences between Canadian and British policing

One of the major differences between Canadian and British policing is the role and extent of volunteering in law enforcement. In England and Wales, we have the Special Constabulary – voluntary warranted police officers with the same powers as their paid counterparts. It varies slightly under provincial legislation, but the Canadian model has Auxiliary Services – voluntary officer roles, without full police powers but with handcuffs and batons and training in community response and engagement policing. Their duties include community events, foot patrol, maintaining public order, supporting searches for missing persons and more broadly delivering crime prevention and building community relationships. These officers have a uniform similar to police officers but which identifies them as Auxiliary through a badge on the chest and arms and a red and black check band on the hat. They operate a rank structure in most police services, officer through to superintendent, and are required to contribute a minimum of 150 hours per year.

The Toronto Auxiliary Service have 360 officers, a ratio of 1:15 regular police officers in a city serving 2.81mresidents (2017). The most similar comparison in the UK is Greater Manchester Police, which have 472 Special Constables, a ratio of 1:13 regular police officers in a city serving 2.78m residents, (not including the 117 Police Support Volunteers in GMP, although I recognise that Auxiliary officers sit somewhere between a Special Constable and a PSV). Whilst Toronto Police do have a Special Constabulary, it is different to the British model because it is not voluntary, but provides partial powers and generally restricts officer duties to specific locations, such as University grounds. The idea of fully warranted voluntary police officers seemed outside of the thinking in Canadian policing, in part due to questions about why individuals would want to take on such responsibility in a voluntary capacity, and partly due to concerns about management of risk and complaints.

Despite the main difference between the two models being the provision of powers and this impact on focus towards community policing or response policing, very similar issues are experienced in recruitment and retention. In particular, Toronto Police are keen to engage Auxiliary Officers who are willing to commit to volunteering for longer periods – i.e. those over the age of 30 and those not directly seeking employment in policing. Currently approximately 90% of their Auxiliary Officers demonstrate an interest in joining the regulars, and of the 20% that leave the service each year, about 50% are due to recruitment into paid roles in policing. Their average service is approximately three years, compared to ours at around two and a half years and our attrition at approximately 25% each yea. In terms of these figures, their performance is slightly better than ours, accepting that we are talking about different roles and levels of responsibility.

A picture of active policing

Our benchmarking work highlights that across Special Constabularies in England and Wales, approximately 50% of officers contribute the required 16 hours per month or more. This proportion is reflected in Toronto, where they suggest about half of their 380 officers are truly active and delivering much more than the minimum contribution, meaning something like 190 officers are providing around 60,000 hours. The intention is to build up the hours of the overall cohort to ensure all volunteers are actively engaged and in addition to this, increase the numbers of Auxiliary officers to 500. In order to achieve this, Toronto Police are looking to focus recruitment efforts towards people older than their current cohort (the majority are under 30, the same as the UK). This is an area I think we can work together on and seek to develop learning from the wider voluntary sector.

Whilst voluntary roles in policing provide an excellent pathway into regular police recruitment – enabling individuals to receive training and develop their skills and experience in their own time and alongside education, work or other commitments – it can be challenging for policing to manage a transient group where often more than half are in training and have non-independent working status. The aspiration to increase the proportion of ‘career volunteers’ is therefore very similar across international contexts. This is an important consideration in our work exploring how the value of volunteering in policing is captured, recognising that some individuals contribute very few hours independently before they leave, whilst others volunteer for two or three decades. Whilst the training for Auxiliary officers is slightly quicker than warranted Special Constables (around 8 weekends, compared to around 16 in England and Wales) the investment cost requires justification and demonstrable return. And in my very limited time in Toronto and one brief conversation with a member of the Police Services Board (their police commissioners), it seems the public scrutiny and the link between political narratives and police resources and performance are more overt than we experience in England and Wales currently (even since the implementation of Police and Crime Commissioners).

The importance of learning and development

Research undertaken by the IPSCJ shows that where volunteers are given the opportunity to learn new skills and to contribute to specialist areas of policing, they are more likely to stay longer in a voluntary role and to contribute more hours. This was evident in the Canadian context also, where the Marine Auxiliary Unit has a waiting list of volunteers wanting to support search and rescue functions, which inevitably requires intense specialist training. Beyond those roles, the Auxiliary is yet to move into other areas of policing where the British model is pushing the boundaries of volunteer involvement, for example roads policing, economic crime and fraud, cybercrime, roads policing, mental health response and managing drone operations. They are very interested to see the outcomes of the transformation fund pilot projects being delivered across England and Wales.

More broadly Toronto Police have one division which offers a voluntary programme to 18 to 26 year olds, similar to our Volunteer Police Cadets, called the Rover Crew in partnership with Humberside College, aimed at building skills and experiences for young people. ‘Police Cadets’ in Canada means new police recruits in training and must not be mistaken for under 18s! Community consultation volunteers in Toronto act in a similar way to our Independent Advisory Groups and victim services volunteers provide the same telephone and face-to-face support to volunteers in the same roles in England and Wales. However, in Toronto those voluntary programmes are all under the same senior police leadership portfolio, which also includes all community policing, early intervention and prevention, mental health and social services collaborations and partnership working. This is something I think forces in England and Wales could benefit from, where Special Constabularies are often more closely aligned to response deployment.

Wrapping up

My trip to Ontario, the time I spent with Toronto Police and Auxiliary Services and my conversations with police officers from Durham and York Police Service whilst at the Ontario Institute of Technology conference, highlighted the opportunities for shared learning across the pond, bringing our research evidence and new ideas together to improve policing practice.