Does Plural Suit Rural? Reflections on Quasi-Policing in the Countryside

AuthorJonathan Merritt,Gavin Dingwall
Date01 September 2010
Publication Date01 September 2010
PSM 12(3) dockie..PSM178 Merritt & Dingwall .. Page388 International Journal of Police Science & Management Volume 12 Number 3
Does plural suit rural? Reflections on
quasi-policing in the countryside

Jonathan Merritt and Gavin Dingwall†
(Both) Leicester De Montfort Law School, De Montfort University, The Gateway, Leicester
†(Corresponding author) Tel: +44 (0) 116 257 7175; email:
Submitted 16 September 2009; revision submitted 18 January 2010;
accepted 30 January 2010

Keywords: Police Community Support Officers, rural policing, plural
Gavin Dingwall has held a readership at Leices-
concerned with one recent development in Eng-
ter De Montfort Law School since 2005.
land and Wales: the introduction of Police Com-
Between 1992 and 2005 he was a member of the
munity Support Officers (PCSOs). Drawing
Department of Law and Criminology at Aberyst-
upon interviews with rural PCSOs and the
wyth University. He is the author of Alcohol and
police officers who manage them, this study asks
Crime (2006) and Diversion in the Criminal Pro-
how PCSOs operate in country areas and what
cess (with Christopher Harding, 1998). He has
difficulties they face. A number of themes
also edited Crime and Conflict in the Country-
emerged: that lack of career development may
side (with Susan R. Moody, 1999).
hinder the formation of long-term ties to a
Jonathan Merritt joined Leicester De Montfort
particular community; that the size of beats
Law School in 2006, although he has taught on
requires transport; that PCSOs felt unable to
De Montfort University programmes since 2004.
respond effectively to minor road traffic offences
Having taught and published initially in the
which were of concern to local residents; that
business law field, he has latterly specialised in
statutory powers to detain could be difficult to
policing, being the lead member on a number of
enforce; and that PCSOs might be particularly
projects to bring police training into the UK
suited to bridge the gap with communities with
university sector. He remains a consultant to a
which the police are having trouble engaging,
selection of these programmes, whilst writing
such as migrant agricultural workers.
specifically in the area of the ‘wider police
family’, a term used to describe the increasing
‘civilianisation’ of policing in the UK.
Law enforcement, order maintenance and
regulation is now carried out by a range of
It is widely accepted that the policing needs of
governmental, commercial and community
rural areas can be very different from those
bodies as well as the police force (see gen-
of urban areas. Because of the concentration of
erally Bryett, 1999; Jason-Lloyd, 2003;
population and (generally) higher crime rates,
Jones & Newburn, 2006; Loader, 2000).
International Journal of Police
reforms in policing often appear to be driven by
This article is concerned with the most
Science and Management,
Vol. 12 No. 3, 2010, pp. 388–400.
urban priorities, which raises questions about how
significant recent development in ‘plural’
DOI: 10.1350/ijps.2010.12.3.178
they operate in the rural context. This article is
policing in England and Wales, namely the
Page 388

Merritt and Dingwall
establishment of the Police Community
Indeed Hoggart (1990) has suggested aban-
Support Officer or Community Support
doning the concept on the basis that it
Officer (hereafter PCSOs; see generally
suggests a homogenous entity that can be
Merritt, 2009). Newburn and Neyroud
contrasted with the mutually exclusive
(2008, p. 42) define such officers as ‘uni-
‘urban’. At an official level, where resource
formed civilian employees of [a] police
allocation can depend upon classification,
authority . . . directed and controlled by
different tests are employed (Commission
the chief officers [possessing] a range of
for Rural Communities, 2008). The classifi-
limited . . . powers’. It is argued here that
cations depend upon locating communities
PCSOs were inspired by urban problems,
on the basis of population density or, less
designed for urban communities and, whilst
commonly, on the basis of an alternative
there are arguments for their presence in
criterion such as employment profile.
urban centres, serious problems remain.
Newby (1980) has highlighted the fact that
Some of these problems are exacerbated in a
these classifications still depend upon popu-
rural setting. For the purposes of clarity we
lation density or some other empirical fac-
define community policing as having at
tor, thereby assuming that social structures
least these features in common: police/
remain constant and uniform. ‘Rurality’ is
community partnerships; a problem-solving
then a contested concept and this needs to
be recognised more fully in criminology
approach; organisational decentralisation
(Moody, 1999). Different areas, which may
(Somerville, 2009); and notional local
be classified identically, may present very
distinct challenges to the police.
In common with most areas of crimino-
This article situates the debate about the
logy, writers have often suffered from ‘mean
role of PCSOs in an exclusively rural set-
streets myopia’ (Dingwall & Moody, 1999,
ting. Some research was carried out with
p. 1) whilst, at the same time, there is often
PCSOs based in an urban setting for a
a tacit assumption that there is something
comparative perspective, but predominantly
distinctive about both crime and its control
the PCSOs surveyed worked in rural local-
in the rural environment. Research sup-
ities or areas which covered both rural and
ports this (eg, Aust & Simmons, 2002;
urban areas. Police officers responsible for
O’Connor & Gray, 1989; Weisheit & Wells,
PCSOs working in a rural environment
1996; Weisheit, Falcone, & Wells, 1994;
were also interviewed in order to see how
Yarwood, 2008; Young, 1993). It therefore
these officers saw the PCSO function. In
seems reasonable to assume that national
order to understand their perceptions, it is
developments in policing may impact dif-
necessary to provide an overview of the
ferently in rural areas. Although there is a
introduction of PCSOs and the legal
rich body of work on rural policing in an
powers granted to them in the relevant
historical context (e.g. Emsley, 2005; Cain,
legislation. These issues will be addressed in
1973) this piece situates the relevant issues
the next two sections. The section after will
in a contemporary context.
describe the methodology employed in this
One has to be wary though of drawing
study. Drawing upon the research data with
too simplistic a distinction between the
PCSOs and serving police officers, con-
‘rural’ and the ‘urban’. ‘Rurality’ is a con-
sideration will then be given to the
cept which ‘is employed easily at a
respondents’ perceptions of the PCSO role.
common-sense level but, on closer inspec-
The conclusion evaluates the role PCSOs
tion, proves very difficult — even imposs-
have, and their suitability, for policing rural
ible — to define’ (Anderson, 1999, p. 45).
Page 389

Does plural suit rural?
reasons, policing has changed. Officers have
The introduction of PCSOs represents part
become more reactive and specialist and this
of a national and international trend
has adversely affected relations between the
towards plural policing (Crawford & Lister,
police and the policed. Reiner (2000, p. 98)
2004, p. 416; Crawford, Lister, Blackburn,
discusses how the Peelian notion of patrol
& Burnett, 2005; Johnston, 2005, 2006,
by uniformed constables as a ‘bedrock’ has
2007). Instead of the traditional model of
been eroded by the needs of modern poli-
police constables carrying out all forms
cing and modern society. He notes that
of policing functions, there has been an
foot patrol has been downgraded and often
expansion in the number of individuals,
‘treated as a reserve from which high flying
agencies and organisations, whether public
potential specialists can be drawn, and a
or private, which undertake some ‘policing’
Siberia to which failed specialists can be
banished’; consequently it is always under
function in tandem with, or instead of,
strength and the work itself unpopular.
police constables.
The move to mobile patrol was overt. In
Parallels to the shift described here exist
1967 the Home Office encouraged police
elsewhere in the public sector. The mod-
forces to increase their use of motorised
ernisation agenda has allowed nurse practi-
patrols and do less foot patrol (Morgan &
tioners to fulfil some of the tasks that would
Newburn, 1997, p. 44). The expected
have been undertaken by doctors, and class-
benefit was an ability to respond more
room assistants to share some of the work-
quickly to telephone calls and to do so over
load with teachers. There are obvious
a wider geographical radius thus enhancing
financial benefits: overqualified staff should
police efficiency and improving police–
not perform tasks which could be delegated
public relations. This is widely agreed to
to those earning less. Police officers, doc-
have had the reverse outcome (p. 45). The
tors and teachers can perform their key
public, it seems, sets great store by foot
functions more effectively if they are not
patrol and consistently complains about the
distracted by jobs which could be delegated
lack of it (p. 97). This creates a considerable
to others. At the same time, though, there is
tension for police managers (p. 99). PCSOs,
the danger that underqualified staff are
it was hoped, would address...

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