South Yorkshire Police, which was heavily criticised for turning a blind eye to the victims of the Rotherham grooming scandal, is teaming up with the University of Sheffield after receiving extra government funding for a pilot scheme.
The university is currently running the post-graduate course of 18 students so they can reach the standards of accredited detectives in interviewing vulnerable victims and witnesses.
They will be employed in the force’s protecting vulnerable people teams from September, as part of a local response to the national problem of the police service not having enough detectives.
South Yorkshire’s Chief Constable Stephen Watson told The Yorkshire Post that the investigators would not have powers of arrest but would cost the force half as much as employing a career detective.
He said: “The people we have recruited onto this are not cops in the traditional sense, but they are people who are all grads, they all have good degrees.
“And this isn’t me having an appetite for pseudo-academics in policing, but it does talk to the quality of the individuals, they have all got good degrees, all 2:1s and above, all sociology, criminology, people who get this world, care about this world.
“It is those people whose talents we then blend with very specific roles, we dice and slice them into the wider team so it is greater than the sum of its parts.
“I just think it is a very interesting leap forward, it is a national pilot, so let’s see how it goes, but I am very encouraged by what I have seen so far.”
It is expected that some of the cohort will go on to become full-time police officers, and that future graduates from the course could be trained up to specialise in other areas, such as online harassment.
South Yorkshire Police, along with Rotherham council, was hit with a series of blistering criticisms in the bombshell 2014 report by Alexis Jay, which revealed the scale of the abuse of young children in the town by grooming gangs.
Mr Watson, who took over as Chief Constable last July, admitted that on the subject of protecting the vulnerable: “In the past we know we have not got this right”.
He said the force found itself with “recommendations from different bodies coming out of our ears” after a series of reports into its failings, and that it had now distilled the 220 recommendations down into one action plan.
An independent review of the force’s plans to improve its service to the vulnerable has been carried out by the College of Policing. Mr Watson said the review “has come back favourably about us having a good plan”, but has not been made public because it contained sensitive material.
He added that in recent months, 27 people have been convicted of child sex offences in Rotherham, including one to 35 years in custody, the longest ever sentence of its type.
One of the victims of the Rotherham scandal, which saw 1,400 children abused between 1997 and 2013, is now helping to train officers in how to deal with vulnerable people.
Mr Watson said: “I think we have undoubtedly turned a corner, we are much better than we have been, I think we are as good as anywhere in the country, and there are some things we are doing, particularly with vulnerable victims, where our people have just performed brilliantly.”
He added: “I am now confident to say South Yorkshire is dealing with these difficult issues as well as anywhere in the country.”
“That is not intended to sound complacent because complacency is the absolute enemy of total effectiveness. It is complacency, or just not seeing, that brought us to place in the first instance.”