The Express on Sunday:New 'vigilantes' a target for yobs

Sunday, 2 November, 2008

UNTRAINED civilians are being given mobile phones and reflective jackets by police and asked to patrol their own streets, tackling thugs or criminals if they need to.

The volunteers will be unleashed in a pilot scheme to crack down on antisocial behaviour, dealing with problems from yobs causing trouble in local parks, to dog-walkers who allow their pets foul pavements.

However, critics warn that the new breed of frontline volunteers could themselves be vulnerable to attack because they will have few real powers and insufficient training.

Officers in many police forces fear the new project not only puts civilians at risk but also increases the risk of encouraging a culture of vigilanties.

Peter Smyth, chairman of the constables branch of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said: "If you want police trained to do the job, then you need to train proper police who are able to intervene.

"There is a danger of these volunteers becoming vigilantes or, at the very least, being ineffective against anyone committing a crime.

"The members of the public volunteering for this scheme are also potential victims themselves. They might as well walk around with a sign saying, 'mug me now'.

"They will have even less power than ordinary Community Support Officers and will put themselves in danger walking around marked out as people working for the police without any proper police powers." The pilot scheme is taking place in the picturesque town of Bakewell, Derbyshire, with the backing of Derbyshire Police.

The training will consist of volunteers spending a few days walking around with community officers, even though they themselves have been heavily criticised for their own lack of proper training and powers. Then the trainees will be encouraged to go out on patrol in their local area.

Police have suggested they make their patrol at the same time they walk their dog in the evening, or perhaps take a longer route to the shops to look out for youngsters causing trouble.

But critics say the only way to truly crack down on crime is to put more fully empowered officers on the beat.

Shadow Home Office Minister David Ruffley added: "I'm all for citizens doing their bit but if this is a case of using them just to cover a lack of sworn officers, it is not acceptable.

"When members of the public are helping police, that is one thing, but when the police authority can't afford a proper copper, then that is not to be tolerated." Bakewell Chamber of Trade chairman Roger Lownsbrough is also worried by the scheme. "It has the potential to put people in danger and seems a rather silly idea, " he said.

"If people would like to see more police on the streets, then they should bring in more police. It is that simple.

"I think that there is also the possibility of someone volunteering for this sort of thing who has a certain prejudice towards someone.

"If they want to involve the community, then why not train up more real community officers, rather than people who will have no proper power at all?

"Wearing reflective jackets could just make them the target for violence.

"We do not have too much trouble here in Bakewell, but there are some unruly youths and this does not seem to be the answer." In 2003 the then Home Secretary David Blunkett launched his muchcriticised civilian policing scheme, pouring millions of taxpayers' money into recruiting ordinary people to march their local beat.

The scheme has been under scrutiny after it emerged that dozens of recruits were investigated for crimes ranging from drug-dealing, fraud and assault, to bigamy and racism. One was even deported because he was an illegal immigrant.