A decision on the future of PCSOs in South Yorkshire has been delayed because of the volume of information being fed back to South Yorkshire Police from consultations into proposed changes to the way they operate.
Consultations were expected to end by the end of April, but investigations into the work done by PCSOs and seeking further information on attitudes from within the communities they serve mean that has been put back at least into May.
The decision has also seen the police review team take the decision to go on patrol alongside PCSOs to gain a greater first-hand understanding of the scope of the tasks they perform – something which varies across the county.
South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, said he was now meeting the review team on a weekly basis and expected more options for the future of the staff to be considered before Chief Constable Stephen Watson and his team made a final decision.
A key detail is Dr Billings insistence that overall numbers of staff on South Yorkshire’s neighbourhood policing teams should not be reduced, meaning if some PCSO positions were replaced by warranted officers the public would still have the same number of police staff in their neighbourhood.
He has also been seeking assurances that PCSO pay would be protected, possibly with tapering pay, if shift allowances and other payments were reduced or withdrawn, with an understanding that any changes to the complexion of neighbourhood teams would be introduced gradually, to allow for changes without the need for redundancies.
The Unite union, which represents PCSOs, sparked a row with the force by recently announcing that removing PCSO positions would leave communities vulnerable to crime, an accusation Mr Watson fiercely denied.
Dr Billings said: “I am now meeting the review team every week to get up to date on where they are at.
“They have had a lot of response and it means they have had to extend the review period. They are not looking at a final set of decisions until well into May.
“They are doing more extensive work around consultations with councillors. They have had three separate meetings with councillors in Doncaster and also with Barnsley Councillors. They are planning meeting with Sheffield Council.
“The review team are walking the beat with PCSOs, trying to get a real hands on feel for what it is like and what they do. They are starting that now,” he said.
PCSOs were introduced by former Home Secretary and then Sheffield Brightside MP Lord David Blunkett, to provide a uniformed presence in communities at a reduced cost to the police service.
They were regarded as successful, but since then pay and conditions settlements have seen their salaries increase to the point where police constables in the early years of their careers are cheaper to employ, but have more flexibility over working patterns and have the power of arrest.
It has been made clear there is no intention to remove South Yorkshire’s PCSOs altogether, as has happened elsewhere in the country, but to examine the balance between those staff and uniformed officers, against a background of what communities currently need from neighbourhood police.
The move has been provoked by the re-introduction of neighbourhood policing teams, which had been scrapped several years ago under a different management regime.
That had left PCSOs as the only neighbourhood presence, meaning in some cases they were taking on roles which had not originally been intended as part of the duties for such civilian staff.
Dr Billings said: “I want warranted officers to do things warranted officers can do, all about enforcement.
“You have to rethink what PCSOs contribute to the neighbourhood offer,” he said.
Neighbourhood policing teams will expand this year, with police recruiting 40 additional officers to work in that area. The intention is to free up additional money in subsequent years so the teams can be expanded further.