PLANS to rebrand police community support officers and make them “the first line of contact” for the public were yesterday criticised as evidence of damaging Government cuts to front-line crime fighting.
South Yorkshire Police wants its regular officers grouped into so-called “taskable teams” available to deal with serious incidents, with PCSOs carrying out all grassroots work on the streets.
Senior officers said the arrangements simply built on changes already made, but police officers’ representatives fear it could lead to the permanent removal of full-time officers from communities.
PCSOs will become Local Beat Officers (LBOs) and many have already received extra training. Spokesmen for Yorkshire’s other three forces said they had no plans to replicate the idea.
Last night both the Police Federation and former Home Secretary David Blunkett, who introduced PCSOs, warned the scheme risked limiting regular officers to “confrontational” duties only.
Mr Blunkett, MP for the Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough, said: “Community support officers are intended to be part of neighbourhood beat teams and not a replacement for them. It would be deeply regrettable if we reverted to the Z-Cars era of flying squads and concentration on reaction rather than prevention.
“I certainly would not be against PCSOs being given additional powers but as part of neighbourhood policing, where warranted officers will always be required to conduct arrests, develop good scientific forensic investigations and build the kind of community policing which engages those living there rather than seeing the police as a crisis force only.
“However, South Yorkshire’s new chief constable and those overseeing the police service are faced with horrendous cuts imposed by the coalition Government.”
Meredydd Hughes, South Yorkshire’s former chief constable, was known to be opposed to the extension of PCSO’s powers, but retired last year and was replaced by David Crompton.
Mr Hughes has put his name forward as a Labour nominee for the new role of elected Police and Crime Commissioner in South Yorkshire. If appointed later this year, he would hold significant powers.
Neil Bowles, chairman of the South Yorkshire Police Federation, representing regular officers, echoed Mr Blunkett’s concerns.
He added: “This is just one more of the unintended consequences of the Government’s budget cuts, and amounts to the removal of police officers from the streets.
“Warranted officers should be out there, visible.
“It seems that the whole agenda is to reduce police officers just to a confrontational role where they are called upon to exercise their powers of arrest or called in when situations require the use of force.
“But if this happens we will lose the vital relationships that officers build up when it comes to gathering intelligence and information.
“We would oppose the proliferation of powers to PCSOs and would have concerns over accountability if further powers are given to them.”
The new plan will be presented to the police authority tomorrow.
Chief Inspector Paul Varley said it was “not about reducing staffing, but redeploying them differently.”
He added: “Ever since we introduced PCSOs they have been the visible face of the police. We are just making it official. We are withdrawing warranted officers back slightly, but they can be tasked to deal with issues that need their warranted powers.
“The roles of PCs and PCSOs are changing, but the public are unlikely to perceive this.”