We need a paradigm shift in the way we think about volunteers in policing

Ahead of the national Citizens in Policing Summit in Manchester on the 21st July, Laura Knight, Director of the Institute for Public Safety, Crime and Justice, discusses the cultural changes that must happen if we are to transform policing across England and Wales.

It was interesting recently to listen to Leesa Harwood, ‎Director of Community Lifesaving and Fundraising at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), on the subject of volunteers in public service when she spoke at the national Specials Conference in Chepstow.

‘Few people will look the volunteer coxswain of a lifeboat who has just navigated a gale to effect a rescue in the eye, and talk to them about volunteers being amateurs rather than professionals,’ said Leesa. ‘Or tell them how apparently you can’t rely on volunteers to show up, or rely on them to deliver essential elements of emergency services, or to fully embody the ethos of an organisation.’

This observation reveals how a paradigm shift is needed in the way we think of volunteers in policing. The way strategic leaders of the RNLI treat volunteers and view the practice of volunteering shows us how important it is that the cultural DNA of police forces is one which wholly values citizens in policing.

Despite not being a particularly new practice, the idea of a serious focus and strategy around the use of volunteers in policing is still in its infancy, as we can see by the fact the IPSCJ is currently producing the first-ever comprehensive audit of volunteers across all forces in England and Wales – an exercise that will transform the evidence base around police volunteering, in order for us to enhance the use of this unique resource.

The new emphasis on volunteers in public service has been born out of need – the economic climate of the UK simply cannot sustain the amount of police officers and staff we have been used to, nor can services continue without evidence-based reform to make them more effective and more efficient. This is an important and timely opportunity to expand our imagination around volunteers through the development of creative and novel approaches which seek to maximise the use of volunteers’ time, skills and commitment.

However this can only be achieved with the cultural buy-in from everyone involved, from Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables to Police Constables on the beat.

Many senior leaders in policing, coming to the end of 30-year-plus careers as police officers, will have lived through at least six of seven different national campaigns and recruitment drives in respect of Special Constables, each talking boldly about increasing numbers and seeing Specials playing a much bigger role in policing, and each delivering little actual change.

We must start to effect positive change through the new insight we are producing in order to change the cultural views that exist due to previous experience. Special Constables and volunteers are no longer just a side-thought or a ‘nice-to-have’; they will be the bedrock of our future policing services and we must ensure this is how they are viewed and treated, in order to move forward in delivering first class services for the public.

As we approach the first national Citizens in Policing summit, there is a sense that these factors are beginning to be recognised. Important funding has been secured via the Home Office Police Innovation Fund to deliver three key improvements: new models of skill and capability coordination across Specials and in time also Police Support Volunteers; a new national online single point for police volunteering; and a further step-change in the cadets programme, with funds to help double the number of Police Cadets.

The national Police Support Volunteer (PSV) network has been revitalised under the leadership of Chief Superintendent Paul Phillips at the College of Policing, and now has an action plan to take forward the PSV agenda nationally. Exciting discussions are taking place around piloting models of need and demand-led volunteering. The draft national strategy also signals the start of a major new evidence-based research and translation programme for police volunteering.

Alongside Chief Constable Dave Jones, the Citizens in Policing lead for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the IPSCJ is at the forefront of this work and I look forward to sharing our findings at the summit in Manchester next month (Jul 21st).

Tickets for this exciting event are free, and can be obtained by clicking here – I’d urge you to join us for what will be an important moment in the future of our policing services.