The unit responsible for investigating serious and complex economic crimes at Yorkshire’s largest police force will be run without any warranted police officers within the next 18 months as part of cost-cutting plans.
West Yorkshire Police says the proposal to staff its economic crime unit entirely with civilian employees will save around £1 million and will not damage the service it provides to the public.
But the plans to remove detectives and officers from the unit, which looks into crimes including money laundering, fraud and corruption, have been described as a symptom of the “ever-increasing civilianisation of the police”.
Since 2010 the force has had to make £140 million in savings and has seen the number of police officers it employs drop by more than 1,000, from 5,800 to fewer than 4,800 as of June this year.
A workforce strategy document reveals that bosses expect to lose a further 350 officers by April 2017, and by 2019/20 will have had to make cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent from the force’s budget.
The document reveals that the force is planning to dramatically increase the number of volunteers and Special Constables it employs “to complement our existing resources and provide additionality, at no cost, at a time when resources are being stretched”.
The changes at the economic crime unit, which is already led by a civilian, Ramona Senior, come after one of a series of reviews carried out to cope with expected budget cuts.
The 33 full-time equivalent police officer roles will be handed over to civilians in the next 12 to 18 months, with the officers currently in post being redeployed elsewhere in the force.
Chief Superintendent Steve Cotter of the force’s Programme of Change said: “With significant savings still required under the Government Comprehensive spending review, we must continue to plan ahead and fundamentally change how we deliver policing services across West Yorkshire.
“The Economic Crime Unit is one area we have identified where the introduction of police staff can substantially reduce costs while offering a continued standard of service.
“All new staff recruited will go through a rigorous selection process having already displayed investigative skills, as well as an understanding of fraud, money laundering and serious and complex financial crime.
“They would subsequently be trained to a level of an accredited investigator that would allow them to search premises, apply for or execute warrants and undertake investigations into serious and complex offences.
“Some officers will initially remain to tutor and transfer their skills. Employing staff with previous experience and expertise in the private sector could also potentially enhance the quality of our financial investigations.”
Nick Smart of West Yorkshire’s Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, said the changes to the economic crime unit were “a sign of the times and the need to save money because of the savage cuts imposed by central government”.
He added: “It is clear to those in policing that the Government want to reduce officer numbers as much as they can despite crime rising, and replace them with cheaper civilian staff in these posts.
“The ever-increasing civilianisation of the police is a cause for concern for all serving police officers and for the public as well as their safety becomes more comprised with fewer police officers. The thin blue line is now the anorexic blue line.”
The number of West Yorkshire Police Special Constables, who have the same powers as regular officers but volunteer for free for a minimum of 16 hours a month, will rise from 887 as of June to 1,500 by next May.
In the same period, the force hopes that the number of volunteers it uses will rise from 561 to 1,000. The volunteers will cover roles including carrying out minor investigative work, answering phones, working as stable hands and being involved in leaflet drops.
Police forces nationwide are making increasing use of volunteers, with Sussex Police revealing last week that it would use civilian horse riders to act as its “eyes and ears”.
Nick Smart said: “We completely understand the difficulties senior officers face in trying to restructure a service with these financial and staff limitations placed upon them.
“Whilst utilising Special Constables to support regular officers has and will continued to be welcomed, they cannot replace the huge gaps, knowledge and expertise left by such dismissing regular officer numbers.
“We are in a position of going back to 1970s levels of officer numbers, going back to the 1980s with a re-active style of policing and only responding to calls, due to the 2015 volume and complexity of demand vastly outstripping resources.
“All this with crime very much on the rise. The public will not realise what is happening to their local police service until it is too late.”
West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Mark Burns-Williamson, said: “Going forward West Yorkshire Police must continue to modernise and transform the way it does business.
“It is important that as part of that there is the right level of resourcing and expertise to be able to keep the communities of West Yorkshire safer and feeling safer.”