Skip to main content

It is the world's most celebrated police headquarters, made famous by Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. For thousands of aspiring police officers, operating at New Scotland Yard is the ultimate career goal.

But like everyone else in Britain, London's Metropolitan Police Service is tightening its belt. Aspiring bobbies can still join the force - as long as they don't expect to get paid.

A 4 per cent per year cut to police spending was announced as part of recent government cuts and, like other forces around the country, the Met has implemented a hiring freeze for new recruits.

The hope is that the slack will be taken up by so-called "special constables" - volunteer officers who wear the same uniform and have the same powers as regular police. Already, there are nearly 4,000 special constables in the Met, and the aim is to boost that number to 7,000 in time for the 2012 London Olympics.

The Metropolitan Police Authority recently voted in favour of most recruits coming from the ranks of the special constabulary. With a few exceptions, such as community support officers or others already trained in law and order, those wishing to join the force must now spend at least 16 hours a month for 18 months working on as volunteers, before applying to become a regular officer - if there are any openings. That includes those candidates who have already spent months going through the application process, including exams and medicals.

The announcement has drawn ridicule from both commentators and opposition politicians. "Do we really want to be policed by hobby bobbies?" harrumphed one headline - while former home secretary Alan Johnson declared, "People volunteer to run the Scouts, not catch criminals."

And, yet, clearly there are those who don't mind volunteering - even as a springboard to paid police work. Claudia Manera, 44, has already been a special constable for 18 months. Having decided she wants to become a regular officer, she is prepared to carry on until a permanent full-time opportunity arises.

A full-time librarian, Ms. Manera dedicates about 30 hours a month - mainly on Friday and Saturday nights - to shifts at her local police station in Ealing, West London. She joined the special constabulary after seeing one of the Met's many advertising posters. Among her colleagues are university students, a flight attendant, a bus driver and a trainee teacher.

Being a special constable, Ms. Manera says, is both nerve-wracking and exciting, especially at the beginning. "You know, getting to the scene, maybe seeing somebody with a bit of blood on them, trying to establish what's happening. There is a lot to learn, particularly for us, because we don't do it every day."

Using special constables represents a significant cost savings. Regular recruits are paid a probationary salary equivalent to about $46,000 and after completing 31 weeks of initial training, new hires earn $51,000 a year.

Special constables have just 23 days of training at Hendon Police College in North London. Everything else they learn is on the job, and they progress through different levels of expertise over time. Dozens have now reached a stage where they can be sent out on independent patrol.

Although for years special constables were viewed with skepticism by regular officers, Ealing Police Station Chief Inspector Peregrine Gwillim says that's no longer the case.

"They are taking the calls to the punch-ups, the drunks, the people urinating in the street, that otherwise would divert regular officers, who are in very short supply on Friday and Saturday nights. They can make the arrest, bring them into custody, and some of them are perfectly capable of dealing with it from A to Z. We are at the point where it isn't just that they're welcome, I think that we would really struggle to survive without them."

Still, senior officers have concerns.

"I can understand why the Met are doing it, because it will save a lot of money," said Peter Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation. "[But]it might put off a lot of people who would otherwise be very good candidates. … I think for a lot of people, 18 months is an awful long time to give up 16 hours a month for nothing, with no guarantee of a job at the end of it."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Interact with The Globe