IN YEARS gone by, there’s been something of a stigma attached to special constables, with part- time voluntary officers often branded as “plastic police” with little authority.
But today specials are integral to police forces everywhere — and play a vital role in keeping communities safe here in the region.
Spotting the difference between one and a “regular officer”, Dumfriesshire special constable Stephen Gillespie said, would be near-impossible.
“You’ll know no different,” he added. “Unless I was to tell somebody I’m a special then they wouldn’t know, which, from my side of things, is brilliant.
“It’s quite nice when you’re out on the street because sometimes people that you’re dealing with can potentially take advantage of the fact you’re not a full-time police officer, but I don’t think people realise the job that special constables do.
“They might think that it’s not what it is, and basically what it is is you are a police officer at the end of the day.
“I just don’t think there’s much awareness out there about what specials do and I didn’t know much about it until I started doing it myself.”
Stephen, who is a radar engineer in his day job, had previously considered becoming a full-time officer but said it didn’t fit in with family life.
“I looked into other things and the special constable programme seemed to work perfectly for me,” he said. “What I seen online is that it would work well with my other job. The two roles are completely different but my past experiences in the Armed Forces — I was in the RAF — means there are some things that cross over that way.
“I’ve been around a long time effectively, I’ve done a few different jobs in the forces and all that kind of stuff, but there’s a lot of things you deal with as a police officer that I’ve never been exposed to in my life, such as drugs.
“So some of the people you deal with, it’s eye-opening and some of the calls that that you might go to are eye-opening – but not overly shocking because you almost expect it because you’ve trained and talked about it.”
Special constables are always assigned to a team and have a high degree of flexibility over who they work with and when they work, Stephen explained.
“I’ll never be on my own,” he said, “as a special I’ll always be paired up with a regular full-time police officer. And it’s great because there’s loads of opportunities; I can request to work with any department within the police in Dumfries and Galloway.
“On the beat response police officers respond to all the 999 calls and anything like that so that’s what I do mostly because that’s what I enjoy but you can also go out and work with traffic police and there’s also potential to work with community police — so there’s a variety and I think that’s what people don’t realise.”
Like the job itself, the training programme for specials works around the availability of applicants, which Stephen called a “major bonus”.
He said: “I think that’s one thing that people don’t realise and maybe something that holds people back. In the past you maybe did not get any training as a special, and you would get handed a uniform and sent out onto the street.
“But now, before you get to the training side of things, the application process is exactly the same as regular police.”
Reflecting on his experience working with the force so far, he added: “It’s 100 per cent what I thought it would be.
“They’ve just welcomed me into it and that has been really good. You might hear some horror stories of “you’re just a special, police don’t want to work with you so much” or whatever, but that’s not been the case. I work well with them and they do call me up and say “we’re short this week, could you maybe fit a shift or two in”, and that’s really nice to have.”
The region has experienced a significant dip in the number of people volunteering as special constables in recent years, with a reported 76 per cent drop between 2013 and last year.
For this reason, Stephen said the local division is currently trying to “push for more”.
And he encouraged anyone considering joining to “just go for it”, adding: “Don’t hold back. it might be the best thing you’ve ever done. My wife’s probably sick of me telling her how much I enjoy being a special. So go for it, as I’ve mentioned, it’s so flexible that if it doesn’t work for you then it’s not a lifetime commitment.”