They have been mocked by the tabloids as plastic police', but since their introduction four years ago, Police Community Support Officers have helped to reduce crime and make people feel safer in their homes. HELEN MEAD looks at the impact they have had in Bradford.

We are a visible presence - we are eyes and ears."

Qaisar Khan worked for 17 years in retail before deciding to pound the streets of Bradford to help people feel safer in their communities.

As a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO), the 40-year-old from Thornbury is a reassuring presence on the streets around Bradford University and Great Horton Road, helping to tackle anti-social behaviour and minor offences. An important role, his work helps to free up regular police officers to concentrate on more serious crimes.

"We take our time, meet members of the community and speak to them," he says. "It could be a chat about general concerns, a dispute between neighbours, or a response to a crime like vehicle theft. No two days are the same."

Adds Carl Luby, 34, from Keighley: "We listen to people's concerns and let them know who we are. People are usually very pleased to see us." A former theatre support worker at Airedale Hospital, he patrols Bradford city centre, helping to keep the peace both during the day and at night when high-spirited revellers leave pubs and clubs.

The men signed up not long after PCSOs were introduced four years ago as part of a nationwide drive towards improving neighbourhood policing. The aim is to tackle crime and the fear of crime, and bring the police closer to local communities.

Attached to neighbourhood policing teams, PCSOs focus on lower-level crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour, as well as assisting regular police officers. In Bradford, as in many other towns and cities across the country, their presence on the streets of Bradford, along with that of street wardens - who also play a vital role in keeping trouble at bay - has led to a dramatic reduction in crime.

In 2005, 18 per cent of total violent crime in the Bradford South division took place in the city's West End. This year, that figure is down to eight per cent, with 500 less violent crimes. Over the past three years, crime in the city centre has fallen by 40 per cent.

Crime-busting initiatives such as Operation Grid Iron, involving the closure of certain city centre roads between midnight and 4am, to divert traffic from the area and allow people to travel home more quickly, would not be workable without PCSOs.

"We could not do it without them," says Sergeant Richard Armstead, who supervises PCSOs in Bradford city centre. "They play a vital role. For anyone coming to Bradford for a drink, to see someone in uniform chatting to the public, lightens the atmosphere."

Unlike regular officers or special constables, PCSOs - who train at police headquarters for seven weeks before being assigned to a community - do not have powers of arrest.

On their introduction they were dubbed plastic police' by the tabloids, amid fears that well-trained staff were being replaced by powerless novices.

And a recent case, reported by the Telegraph & Argus, about two PCSOs asking a white man if he could prove he was the father of his two mixed race daughters raised questions about their treatment of sensitive issues.

The incident involved a man and his daughters being approached by PCSOs in Pizza Hut in Bingley, following a query by a member of the public. A West Yorkshire spokesman apologised for any inconvenience or embarrassment caused.

But police declined to comment on the issue of PCSO recruitment.

PCSOs appear to have proved their worth, however, with independent studies carried out across the country finding between 50 per cent and 70 per cent of residents feeling more secure.

More recent research focusing on West Yorkshire, carried out by the Hallam Centre for Community Justice at Sheffield Hallam University, concluded that PCSOs were welcome in the community.

This success has led to the Government pledging to put an extra 16,000 PCSOs into communities across England and Wales by next April. At present West Yorkshire has 559 - a figure that, by April, will have risen to between 750 and 800.

Qaisar Khan and Carl Luby have addressed problems including anti-social behaviour, drinking or being drunk in the city centre, car theft and skateboarding in areas where it is not allowed. Recently, PCSOs have been involved in a crime reduction programme, contacting vehicle owners who have left valuables on display in their parked car, and giving them crime prevention advice. An average of 150 people are people are spoken or contacted through the DVLA each week.

In certain situations, PCSOs can detain people for up to 30 minutes until a trained officer comes along.

They also play a valuable role at the scene of crimes, manning the crime scene while officers get on with the pressing work behind the scenes.

Inspector Steve Baker, who has introduced various initiatives to reduce crime in the city centre, said the 30-strong team of PSCOs in Bradford South had had a major impact on crime, particularly in the city centre.

"They provide reassurance to the public, they are out there talking to people, which makes people feel safer. The fear of crime is reduced."

He adds: "Statistically, Bradford is safer than most cities and a lot of that is down to the presence of PCSOs and wardens. They are out there every day."

Chief Inspector Mark Hartley, from West Yorkshire Police community safety department, whose job includes recruiting and co-ordinating PCSOs, says: "People see the PCSOs on the street every day. Around 84 per cent of their time is spent on patrol.

"For police officers, between 40 and 45 per cent of their time is taken up working inside police buildings. Police officers have a massive commitment to paperwork. The demands on the police service, and our drive to reduce crime, means that we have less time to spend on patrol."

He adds: "PCSOs are welcomed by police officers and public. They are a really valuable addition to the policing services, they make a real contribution. We can achieve so much more with them on our teams."

The on-going recruitment drive was, he adds, attracting many applicants.

Adds Mr Qaisar: "People come up and tell us how happy they are to have us around. That is very rewarding."

  • For further information about joining West Yorkshire Police as a PCSO, ring 0845 6000925 or visit www. Alternatively look at www.