The current and future role of Police Community Support Officers in Staffordshire

Research Institution / Organisation

University of Derby

Principal Researcher

Neil Oldfield

Level of Research

Masters

Research Context

Following the government White Paper Policing a New Century: A Blueprint for Reform (Home Office, 2001), the Police Reform Act 2002 introduced the Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) to policing. A civilian role intended to provide a high visibility presence and reassure the public about their personal safety, to reconnect a perceived gap in the relationship between the police and the public (Povey, 2001). Despite the role originally placing a focus on interaction and engagement, rather than coercion, they were envisaged to be a key mechanism to control and effectively manage public space.

Their introduction however was met with confusion from the public (Cooke, 2005), with uniforms similar to police officers and ineffective levels of authority that perplexed many (Newburn & Neyroud, 2008), attracting low levels of respect from the community as a result. The police service itself was also confused by the new role and had no comprehension of where or how the role fit into the organisation, both on a practical or cultural level (O'Neill, 2017). Despite hostility towards the role, constructed on the perception of ineffective enforcement powers (Cosgrove, 2016; O'Neill, 2017), studies contradict this and evidence a significant positive impact in crime hot spot areas where PCSOs are deployed (Caless, 2007; Harrington, et al., 2005).

As contemporary policing looks towards a pluralistic approach to meet modern demands placed upon them (Loader, 2000), the modernisation agenda regarding professionalisation is only considered for police officers (Avery, 1981; Etter & Palmer, 1990). With comprehensive higher education accreditation now being considered essential to modern policing (Neyroud, 2011), there is little in the literature regarding other public facing roles within the police service.

My study focuses on the current perception of powers, practices and effectiveness of PCSOs, in the delivery of policing priorities in Staffordshire. It also considers the future development of the role within a modern pluralised police service. The objective is to identify and fill selected gaps within the domain whilst confirming, denying, or modifying (CDM) the existing literature. To do this, the study focusses on the following research questions

  • Conduct a literature review to determine the current knowledge base and gaps relating to PCSOs. (Research Question One - RQ1)

  • Examine how PCSOs contribute towards reducing crime and ASB through the collection of primary and secondary data from Staffordshire Police and key partner agencies. (Research Question Two - RQ2)

  • Gather primary evidence from the public, partner agencies, PCSOs and police officers to recognise current perceptions of PCSO powers and practices. (Research Question Three - RQ3)

  • Understand current training and development practices and utilise primary data to make recommendations regarding the future direction of the role and responsibilities of a PCSO in Staffordshire. (Research Question Four - RQ4)

Research Methodology

Potential research participants have been categorised into four separate cohorts, those being, PCSOs (C1), Police and Investigative Officers (C2), Statutory Partner Agency (C3) and finally, Members of the Public (C4). The author deemed this to be necessary as generic questioning would not achieve the aims of the research questions and this approach allowed the extraction of specific data, using instruments relevant to the individual cohorts. Altschuld & Lower (1984) stress that a strategy of directing questions that are salient to the participant also yields a higher response rate, something the researcher was cognisant of.

Maxwell (2013) asserts that purposive sampling has a number of significant uses, one being that the sample will be representative of the settings or individuals that are being investigated and the approach sufficiently captures the homogeneity of the participant population. The author considers this approach to be the most appropriate method to capture meaningful data which answers the majority of the research questions (Walliman, 2016). However, the author does acknowledge that purposive sampling can provide subjective responses based on the participants experiences and judgement (Guarte & Barrios, 2005). The author also adopted non-probability convenience sampling, specifically in regards to C4, due to the ease in which general public opinion can be obtained (Lisa, 2008), but remained cognisant that bias of the responses cannot be measured and sub-groups of society may be under-represented (Bornstein, et al., 2017).

ON-LINE QUESTIONNAIRES

Three structured anonymous questionnaires, primarily utilising a Likert scale (Likert, 1932) have been used to obtain primary data for statistical analysis of participants opinion and experience (RQ2, RQ3, RQ4), with the addition of allowing participants to express any additional views in an unstructured format through open questions. This was intended to help inform a semi-structured interview stage, also comprising a selection of open questions. The use of a Likert scale indicates the participants' strength of feeling or attitude towards the question asked, with the implication that the higher the number selected, the greater the strength of agreement with the question.

PCSOs (N=39) were recruited via the Staffordshire Police internal intranet with the support of the Communications Team inviting anonymous participation via a QR code or link to the PCSO specific questionnaire relevant to RQ2, RQ3 and RQ4.
Members of partner agencies (N=31) were invited to participate via an email which explained the purpose of the research project with a link and QR code to their specific questionnaire relevant to RQ2 and RQ3.
Members of the public (N=87) were recruited to the study via engagement links on social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, along with publicity at community meetings, where they were invited to participate in the study via the completion of a questionnaire relevant to RQ3.

SEMI-STRUCTURED INTERVIEWS

The 1-2-1 interviews were split between two of the participant cohorts, C1 and C2. The author recruited volunteer participants for both cohorts from Staffordshire Police employees. There were no exclusion criteria for C2, to ensure participants from a wide range of diverse backgrounds, lengths of service and roles were considered. Police Staff were also target recipients of this cohort without exception, to include roles such as Investigative Officers (IO) who work within the same teams as PCSOs. The interviews (N=6) explored participant opinion and experiences relevant to RQ3.
C1 (N=4) were recruited without any exclusion criteria. Their interview questions differed to those of C2 and sought to extract participant experience and opinions relevant to RQ2, RQ3 and RQ4.

Resulting data will be coded using SPSS and Nvivo and analysis and findings presented.

Date due for completion

April 2021
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