The title of the national Specials Conference was ‘Inspiring Volunteering’ (or ‘Ysbrydoli Gwirfoddoli’, as it was the turn of the Welsh forces to host the national conference). It was certainly very difficult not to feel inspired by the volunteers in attendance, as over 7,000 years of volunteering experience and service to communities gathered together in one room.
This is an exciting time for Specials. The new ‘Citizens in Policing’ strategy is under construction. The strategy puts the contribution of Specials and wider police volunteering centre-stage in meeting the new challenges which policing faces and in better achieving policing outcomes for all our local communities. The draft strategy estimates the current annual contribution of Specials to policing to be in the region of £100m. Although attending a conference like this, it quickly becomes clear that the contribution and value of Specials is far greater than can be summarised in any cash figure.
On the opening evening of conference, Chief Constable Dave Jones, the NPCC lead for Citizens in Policing, updated on the strategy work, including reporting back on findings from the National Survey of Specials and Police Support Volunteers, the largest such national survey of volunteers in policing ever undertaken with over 3,000 responses. Much that the survey has to say is positive: the commitment, passion, motivation and fulfilment of Specials shines through. But there are also some key challenges: many Specials do not think the police service is good at managing volunteers, recruitment processes are slow and bureaucratic, and Specials seek wider roles and greater involvement in policing.
That sense of wider roles and of utilising the skills and potential of Specials to the full was one of the key themes cutting across the three days of the conference. Some great examples of innovation in forces were aired. Some critical areas for Specials to contribute into were also emphasised, in particular in relation to ‘cyber’ crime and security. Tom Haye, Chief Officer of the Hampshire Special Constabulary, set out the scale of the ‘cyber’ challenges and updated the conference on the pilot ‘cyber’ project in Hampshire and Gloucestershire, which is set to be rolled out nationally. In terms of skills utilisation, there were also some evident frustrations that Specials could still contribute far more, and in far more diverse ways, than they currently do if only police leaders and force cultures enabled them to do so.
Another key theme that repeated across the conference was that being a volunteer is not the same as being an amateur. Examples were given across the three days of the conference of the enormous skill and high levels of professionalism of many Specials. A passionate and inspiring presentation by Leesa Harwood, Director at the RNLI, on the first evening of conference set the tone. She reminded us all of the enormous professionalism of those lifeboat volunteers, as well as reflecting a compelling strategic culture towards volunteering at RNLI which policing, truly, should aim to aspire towards. There was no talk of ‘only’ being a volunteer, of volunteers being secondary to paid staff and of lesser status, of volunteers as a side issue or not at the core of the operation. For the RNLI, volunteers are the backbone; they are in their DNA, volunteering is one of their fundamental values as an organisation.
There was recognition that one challenge in respect of professional status for Specials remains the absence of national and consistent standards. The panel session on the first evening of conference (with CC Jones, Chief Superintendent Paul Phillips from the College of Policing, Nigel Green, Chair of the Association of Special Constabulary Chief Officers, and ACC Richard Debicki of North Wales Police) unanimously supported the need to strengthen standards frameworks. One key benefit of doing so would be the greater interoperability of Specials across force boundaries.
The picture on Specials standards – and indeed most of policy and practice in relation to Specials – remains patchy and little understood on a national level. CC Jones introduced the National Benchmarking Exercise, being delivered by the Institute for Public Safety Crime and Justice, which aims in the next couple of months to achieve a much clearer picture of the current state of practice on Specials, Cadets and Police Support Volunteers across every force in England and Wales. The benchmarking will feed into the launch of the CIP strategy, and help focus resources and action as the strategy process shifts into the delivery phase.
Nigel Green MBE and Ian Miller MBE updated the conference on the work of the Association of Special Constabulary Chief Officers. Through the association, Specials have an influence and a seat around the table of many strategic developments across policing. Discussions during conference emphasised this importance of Specials having a voice at all levels in the service, and of the need for further development and reform of how Specials and wider volunteers within policing are represented in the future. A step towards that future was a decision made by ASCCO over the weekend to welcome Specials at Inspector rank into their association for the first time.
As is often the case at conferences, it was at the workshops that a lot of the detail and vibrancy of the world of Specials came across. Workshops highlighted the many different specialist roles Specials perform and specialist contexts they work within. They captured the importance and enormous untapped potential of employer supported policing. And shared best practice in attraction, recruitment, training and retention of Specials.
On Saturday Sir Martyn Lewis CBE, broadcaster and Chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, delivered a passionate keynote speech setting the wider context of volunteering. He argued that volunteering with the police “has to be near the top of the tree” when it comes to volunteering opportunities and emphasised the enormous social, health and wellbeing impacts of volunteering. “Volunteering is the backbone of our society” and “you walk home with a new spring in your step when you have spent time helping others”. He argued that there is an “incredible tide that is rolling across our country” of voluntary contribution and impact.
The conference also captured an international perspective, with delegates drawn from as far afield as the USA and South Africa. Dr Ross Wolf, from Orange County, Florida, talked about volunteers in policing in the US context, and Greg Mekitarian updated on progress in the development of the Garda Reserve.
It is impossible to come away from the last three days of conference without feeling a resonance with the final remarks that closed the conference, from CC Jones and ACC Debicki. That the days had reflected that “ordinary people doing extraordinary things can truly change the world”, and that in terms of policing the Specials represent exactly that on a daily basis across the country. Specials have a proud and a long history, but there was also a strong sense of the future potential. There are big policing challenges ahead of us, but a huge potential for how Specials can transform to meet those challenges. CC Jones finished by quoting “volunteer don’t get paid, not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless”. It is clear from the conference that there is much the policing world needs to do to truly realise all of the value that Specials can bring, but that the rewards of doing so will be huge.
The Gala Dinner on Saturday remembered the huge community contribution of the late Peter Howells OBE, who served as a Special in Gwent for more than four decades, and who had been involved in development of the conference before he sadly passed away earlier this year. To those who knew him it is clear that Peter personified the values and contribution of the Specials which this conference so strongly reflected. It was Peter who had chosen the charity for the Gala Dinner, the Mountain Rescue Service. Another voluntarily delivered service with hugely high standards of professionalism.
Thank you to all who made the weekend’s conference such a success. The great challenge is capturing the passion, possibilities and potential so evident over a great weekend, and making sure senior leaders across policing appreciate what it is possible to deliver through Specials in the future.