masthead abstract illustrative image

Capturing Thoughts About PCSOs and Engagement


I am writing this blog for three reasons:

  1. The practice of PCSOs is changing and I don’t agree we are going in the right direction
  2. @GMHales recently tweeted about the role of PCSOs being about engagement and asked me to blog some initial thoughts
  3. I am regularly frustrated by the missed potential of the resource

Why do we have PCSOs?

In 2002(when they were introduced) they were there to:

  • Police neighbourhoods
  • Reduce the public’s fear of crime, and
  • Increase orderliness in public places

During this time, they were often a way of bringing Local Authority priorities together with low level police priorities: they might get funded through a Community Safety Partnership and/or through the Local Authority to address what they (the LA) felt the community wanted.

The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014created additional powers for PCSOs: chief officers were able to decide which they wanted to grant to PCSOs in their force areas. These included:

  • seizing property
  • to confirm the identity of a charity collector
  • issuing fixed penalty notices for parking in a restricted area outside schools; causing unnecessary noise; cycling without lights and carrying a passenger on a cycle.

Today the Police Recruitment website says that a PCSO can expect to deal with issues that involve:

  • Supporting victims of crime
  • Helping with house to house enquiries
  • Dealing with truants, graffiti, abandoned vehicles and litter
  • Protecting the public from security threats

Increasingly we are hearing that PCSOs are doing much more to support police officers – the ‘P’ (Police) and the ‘S’ (Support) are being used differently to how they were originally envisaged so that forces can try and address their demand and the often-used PCC priority to keep the victim at the heart of policing.  Many of the PCSOs that I have met like this role – it often blurs the line between the traditional PCSO and a PC.  They complain equally about the demand they are dealing with, and some report not liking the reduced autonomy of their day.  They also report feeling like the poor relation in policing: a perceived neglect by the police family whilst also being opposed by many in the communities they serve. It can be an isolating role at times.

Over my years in policing I have come to recognise three types of PCSO:

  1. The one that wants to join the regulars (this has increased since forces made it a key recruitment pathway to becoming a regular)
  2. The former traffic warden or street based warden who saw the PCSO as a natural progression with enforcement
  3. The one that genuinely cares about community and wants to be the link between community behaviours and sentiment, and how they link those with the law enforcement arm of their police family

So, with a changing role that is focused more on police support than community engagement, my next question is:

 What happened to the ‘C’ in PCSO?

I am not entirely sure it was ever really there with any clarity and robustness at a force or national level. One senior officer told me they have never really known what to do with them and that is why they have been left to their own devices largely unaccountable for the community engagement that they may or may not have conducted.  Maybe that is why Norfolk took the controversial decision to get rid of the resource?

For me, the purposeof PCSOs being in the community and what community engagement really meant, in terms of the activity they conducted, has always been ambiguous and largely unchecked.  What was there in terms of the ‘C’ (Community) of PCSOs has been squeezed out in recent years and the connection between them and the community is significantly hampered, in my opinion, by limited skills, fixed values (and bias) on how they engage, and unfortunately and increasingly their lack of desire to conduct meaningful engagement.

Increasingly many of our communities have a deteriorating relationship with policing. They see police numbers falling and think that visibility of their police is virtually non-existent. They are made to wait unacceptable levels of time to see a police officer and often their calls go unanswered.  Though they desperately want to rely on the police they feel increasingly disengaged and their levels of trust and confidence are deteriorating.  PCSOs need to be more active in communities than ever to engage, communicate and to generate ways of ensuring that the challenges being faced by policing do not leave communities weaker

I have not been a police officer or PCSO, but have worked specifically in policing for over ten years now and I have had the privilege of working across at least aquarter of forces in England and Wales exploring the way in which the police family engage communities and the role of the PCSO within that.   On the whole they (PCSOs) have received little additional training and professional development from their date of joining, and have largely been thought about as the poor relation within the police family; often police officers don’t know how to use them effectively and unlike many professions at that level they have had considerable autonomy and self direction over their day.

They have been a collection of individuals who have a sense of agency – in that they have independence and the ability to choose what they do with their day – but it has been misdirected at times, and the C of the role has suffered as a result.  They have been unable or unwilling to make the case for engagement internally and as such officers feel they could better use them to address the mundane or routine elements of their police work.

So, what should PCSOs be doing?

Building social capital is the short answer to that!  Areas with high social capital tend to have lower levels of crime and better levels of health and wellbeing.  Forces must go beyond community engagement as they know it; beyond engagement with individuals only and start to lead and facilitate community dialogues about the most challenging community issues (serious violence, serious and organised crime, vulnerability, exploitation, and so forth).  The learning from these dialogues needs to be effectively analysed and used to inform intelligence led policing.  Community input must have more equal weighting to calls for service or crime recording: community engagement must go beyond the nice to do, or the add on, and be more about facilitating challenging and (sometimes) uncomfortable listening exercises that can be learned from to improve policing.

Importantly we must go beyond the traditional information gathering – our engagement must lead to the disengaged becoming engaged. It must empower those who feel the police don’t care, and it must reach out and include the perspectives of those who are causing or contributing to the complex demands within policing.  The PCSO must be curious and genuinely interested in facilitating diverse opinions.

The public want to be listened to on controversial issues, but where do they get heard?  101? 999? PCC elections? Complaints procedures? PACT meetings? Surveys? Social media? All these tools provide a platform for extreme views (left or right) and do not facilitate collaborative community learning and action (with the possible exception of social media after significant issues like riots, bombs and murders).

I met a woman recently who had been in a building where we were planning future engagement activity with a force.  She heard police were in the building but chose to seek a colleague and I out rather than approach a police officer or PCSO.  She told us about her child being sexually exploited and potentially groomed. She had reported it to teachers because she knew the guy was doing it to more than only her 13 year old daughter. But she didn’t want to report to the police for two reasons:

  1. She didn’t want him criminalised at a young age
  2. She didn’t want to go to court or be involved in a formal police style investigation

The PCSOs in that area told us the public despise them: they hate them, spit at them and throw things at them.  In another force we were told how the community ‘catch them looking like they are doing nothing and put it on Facebook’.  In many others they tell us the community don’t care about them or the wider community.  All negative views of a community that perhaps needs to be listened to understand how these views came to be shaped.

Unfortunately, the PCSO view of the public is often reciprocated (perhaps understandably?) and we regularly hear about their low opinion of those who they serve and the inability of those who they serve to do anything for themselves: they see engagement as a hopeless option.  The public become an inconvenient problem at best and are vilified at worst within policing and more so as the world feels more violent and the job feels more difficult.

But my senior police colleague reminded me that ‘it is the job of the police to be liked, so if the community hate you you better get out there and change that!’  Policing is a public service.  Offering a service that does not engage and reflect the public we serve is a publicly funded but private and unaccountable view of policing that depends on the values of those delivering the role (from Home Office civil servants to local frontline teams).  This is unacceptable in a modern democracy: policing must continue to be by consent and the public should be given the opportunity to have a reasonable role in shaping the look and feel and context of that policing.  If Police and PCSOs don’t like the public and don’t want to listen to what they say it is no wonder the trust gap is increasing.

How could we put the C back in PCSO?

In true strengths-based style we encourage those we work with to build on what’s strong, not what is wrong, so I would like to end this blog with what is strong about PCSOs and what I have seen that needs to change and strengthen their role further to put the C right back in to their role!

PCSOs provide an opportunity to give a voice to the disengaged and to bring about real changes in attitude.

PCSOs are:

  • A valuable resourcefor the organisation to use in meeting the vision of public service that the organisation wants to see. forces being clear about the role that PCSOs play in delivering the outcomes that their vision seeks – to get beyond reacting and responding to pressures and becoming part of the problem solving solution. If we asked them to only focus on building social capital through their engagement, forces could reap the rewards in terms of not only reducing demand, but also resolving crimes more quickly and ensuring they better understand what is emerging in terms of social norms.  Leaders need to move beyond their limited view of engagement and think more purposefully about the impact of social capital in meeting their shared vision: experiment with new strength based problem solving tools and ensure they have open minds to see how to change the nature of engagement and policing.
  • A group of frontline leaderswho can unleash knowledge, skills and competencies by connecting with people and systems in localities. They should be encouraged to collaborate with partners and lead by example with positivity: how can they change a negative relationship into a positive one? And if they do, the organisation should commend/reward them for making that shift.  Let them see themselves as social leaders who become engagers, connectors, bridge builders, and agents of change in their localities with the very people who at best disregard them and at worst hate them.
  • Able tocollect knowledge and informationthat could translate into intelligence about the community they serve. We should require them to set up and facilitate collective conversations and actions.  And we should encourage them to seek out alternative and sometimes radical views to be shared because we know that those views are better out than in and can turn into creative and positive community dialogue and action.
  • Passionate about policing and making a difference. This passion should be built open within the context of building social capital – Investment in coaching for social capital programmes would help them to see how they can make a difference more quickly and more powerfully than patrolling.

As I watch forces call out to communities for information on murders, violence, and organised criminality I am conscious that if those very PCSOs moved away from police work, and toward building social capital (with the right training and support) they could make the connections and networks needed to receive the information that forces need.

We know from those we have worked with that despite having to train against their so called ‘better judgement’ (they have threatened to take us to the union for training them to do community engagement!), PCSOs have been genuinely moved by the impact they can have using different techniques (they have literally cried at the energy and connections created through the process).  By focusing their role to meet the shared purpose of policing with, by and for communities they can become the professional arm of police engagement and builders of social capital within their localities.

Written by Susan Ritchie: Director of MutualGain