RECRUITING ‘200 new officers’ with millions of pounds raised by a £24-a-year council tax hike for Hampshire police has only been made possible by cutting PCSOs, The News can reveal.
Council taxpayers have been asked to fork out more money and in publicity leaflets were promised there would be: ‘200 new officers, 65 police staff investigators, and training for PCSOs’. The message was that the ‘extra officers will tackle local crime’.
Police bosses have recruited 210 officers but admitted there will be just ‘80 extra’ overall because the remaining 130 are filling longstanding vacancies and replacing people retiring.
At the same time, people leaving PCSO roles have not been replaced to the same number as they join PC and police staff investigator roles. So while some new PCSOs are being trained there will be a drop from about 330 to 236 in just over a year.
It is part of a switch to prioritising warranted officers tackling domestic abuse, drug-linked stabbings, exploitation and ‘criminals at the top of the food chain’.
Senior officers and crime commissioner Michael Lane insist that without the tax increase there would have been a further cut to officer numbers overall - and budgeting has allowed recruitment to jump from 200 to 210.
There has been no formal announcement about the cut in PCSOs but chief constable Olivia Pinkney described a reduction from 256 in February down to 236.
Councillor Trevor Cartwright MBE, who voted for the police precept increase put forward by the crime commissioner, said he was ‘dismayed’ at the figures.
He said: ‘That wasn’t quite what we thought we were voting for – they didn’t give numbers such as those.’
Cllr Cartwright, deputy leader at Fareham Borough Council, added: ‘I’m a bit dismayed - that wasn’t my impression.’
Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan said: ‘I was assured by Mr Lane that increasing the financial burden on local taxpayers would result in 200 new police officers out on our streets fighting crime.
‘I am hugely concerned by reports that this is no longer coming to fruition.’
Ranks of PCSOs swelled to 380 from a planned 334 two years ago - with many of them waiting to take up warranted positions with powers of arrest amid a recruitment freeze.
Hampshire police started recruiting into PC roles even before extra cash was brought in from the council tax hike earlier this year in a bid to get recruits through the training course and out onto the streets sooner.
The move to ditch PCSOs on a large scale comes as police battle more serious crime. A spokesman said: ‘With more high-harm offences needing to be investigated, we need to change the balance of PCSOs and PCs.’
Speaking to The News, Mr Lane said: ‘Every penny in the rise of council tax precept is going to that purpose and that’s the promise I made - if that isn’t realised I will be wanting to challenge the chief constable very strongly - that is the basis I raised the precept.
‘Without this rise there would have been 200 fewer officers. Without this precept rise there would have been 65 fewer investigators.’
He added: ‘If I don’t deliver, I will be the most embarrassed of everybody.’
Top officer Ms Pinkney has vowed to carry out 'an increase in the offensive on the crime in our communities' and is bringing in PCs to do so instead of PCSOs.
In a scrutiny session recorded with Mr Lane, she said: 'This opportunity enables us to increase by 80 the officers dedicated in our neighbourhood teams. It also means that PCSOs - who we will still have one of the greatest number in the country despite recent changes - will still have very, very high numbers.
'They will be able to dedicate themselves to what I know the public want, which is publicly-facing, engagement, problem-solving in the hearts of communities. They will be even more released to do that than they are today.'
Former crime commissioner Simon Hayes ringfenced PCSO numbers while in office from 2012 to 2016. He said: ‘Such a large reduction of PCSOs will put real additional pressure on neighbourhood policing, which is a great shame and not the right policy in my view.
‘It’s really challenging for our police at the moment, they don’t need the public to think there are more of them than is actually the case. I’m quite shocked at this.’
THE CRIME COMMISSIONER’S VIEW
COMMISSIONER Michael Lane has insisted that without the tax hike there would have been a cut in police staffing levels.
A statement from his office said: ‘Traditionally Hampshire Constabulary has had to carry a number of police officer vacancies because of uncertainty with funding.
‘With the availability of increased funding through the precept this year, the police and crime commissioner challenged the chief constable to ensure that all of the vacancies be filled.
‘As a result the intake this year will be an increase of 210 police officers that the chief constable committed to use to strengthen and protect local communities.
‘Without the precept increase, the force would have had to continue its recruitment freeze and would have had to reduce its workforce further.
‘The 210 officers will be achieved by recruiting to current vacancies, to posts where officers are due to retire and some additional new posts.
‘The police and crime commissioner is reassured the recruitment of these officers is very much under way, with the first entrants already in training, and 210 will be recruited and making a difference in local communities by the end of the year.
‘The configuration of the force is an operational decision based on threat, risk and harm and is made by the chief constable.
‘Complex and serious crimes have grown significantly and responding to this requires more officers with warranted powers.
‘The chief constable has stated that increasing the number of warranted police officers on the streets will have a major impact, improving the force’s ability to investigate crime, flex its resources to where they are most needed, and arrest criminals and the police and crime commissioner will scrutinise the chief constable to ensure that the posts are delivering real improvement to local safety.’
THE CONSTABULARY’S VIEW
CRIMINALS ‘at the top of the food chain’ will be tackled under the plans to axe PCSOs in favour of warranted officers.
A Hampshire police spokesman said: ‘We will have 80 extra police officers working in neighbourhood policing teams to focus on high harm offenders, linked to most serious violence, drug-related harm, exploitation and domestic abuse.
‘These criminals often sit at the top of the food chain of offending. Their action drives lower level crime, such as anti-social behaviour, robbery and theft, which impacts heavily on our communities.
‘Our plan will see us tackle crime more effectively at its cause, and we would like to again thank the public for their support in making this possible.’