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BBC, Radio 4,

From Our Home Correspondent

Under Blue Lights  

By Jane Labous

Producer: Simon Coates

Listen here


Jane Labous joins the Special Constables on Christmas patrol. They’re part of the police force in England, Scotland and Wales, and yet not – for they are volunteers who have the power to detain and fine those who break the law. At a time of tight police budgets in Dorset, the regular police tell Jane, without the Specials there would be many fewer arrests. But who are the Specials and what is the essential job they perform for no salary?

The moment the siren comes on, so do the blue lights. I’m out on patrol with Dorset’s No Excuse team, a local unit responsible for road safety. Suddenly we’re driving rather fast, and it’s all flashing and noise, as you’d expect in a police car. 


“Is that Zulu Tango Charlie?” a voice crackles satisfyingly through the radio. Rob Scott, Special Constable 4739, puts pedal to metal. We hurtle past Christmas fairy lights twinkling merrily in the early evening darkness, a gaggle of giggling people in reindeer headdresses emerging from an office doorway, bus-stop adverts for prawn canapés and turkey crowns. Outside the local supermarket, a giant Christmas tree sparkles through the rain, lights merging in a blur with ours. It’s like The Bill Christmas Special, except it’s real.


Rob, though, is not being paid. He’s one of 12,000 special constables – or so-called specials - across the UK, 115 of them in Dorset, who volunteer their time to the police force. First established in 1835, the specials are considered an integral part of the force. They are rooted in its history through two World Wars – when specials would often be drafted in to help with air raids and ambulance driving - to the present day. 


In real life Rob works as a property letting agent, although it’s hard to imagine as he sits there behind the wheel in his stab vest, talking into the radio. Specials might give their time voluntarily, but in all other respects they are exactly like regular police officers – and are treated as such. “I think of myself as a police officer,” says Rob. “I’ve got the same powers as the rest, same responsibilities. Our boss, a regular officer, never treats us any differently. We’re very tight knit, like a family.” 


John Hannan, officer 4561, is an IT consultant who’s worked as a special for ten years. “We get all sorts of people; vets, engineers, social workers,” he explains with evident passion. “It’s a volunteer opportunity like no other. You get to face all sorts of situations, some will make you laugh, some will make you cry. It’ll really test you. Often people don’t get that from their day jobs.” 


Today on patrol there’s Rob and John, as well as Paul Barker, a banker; Josh ***, a PE teacher and Dan Patrascu, who works in another department, but volunteers his time for the No Excuse unit. Being a special enables them to give something back to the community, they tell me, and brings perspective, adds John. ‘At work, when people say things are critical, I think, hang on, is this real life!” he laughs. 


Of course, there’s a moderate amount of excitement and adrenalin sprinkled in too. “The first time I went on a high-speed flash, as we call it, it was absolutely thrilling,” says John with a boyish grin. “My colleague’s flying down this road, and I’m hanging onto the car door. I thought, I’m going to die. I’ll always remember that.” 


This second to last Friday before Christmas, festivities are reaching a crescendo. It’s arguably the unit’s busiest time, as office parties, Friday night revellers, people who don’t normally go out hit the cocktails. Rob grimaces as he runs through a list of people he’s nicked during December for drinking or texting while driving. “I had one last week texting his Mrs about his Christmas present at 70 miles an hour, in a torrential downpour. He got a 200 pound fine, and six points on his licence.”


Back at HQ, I chat with regular Police Constable Rob Williams. “The permanent specials attached to our team are vastly experienced,” he smiles. “We wouldn’t get anywhere near the success we do without them.” PC Connor Valentine agrees, handing me two breathalysers as a Christmas present. “Without specials, our arrest numbers would be way down, so they’re really invaluable.”


In the patrol car, Rob and I chat between radio buzzes and the occasional burst of blue lights. We help a woman who’s broken down at traffic lights, then chase and issue fines to two texting drivers and one uninsured car. 


“It’s nice that the force believes in the specials,” says Rob as he climbs back behind the wheel, chucking his hat on the back seat. “It’s a lot of responsibility when you’re in uniform. The people I stop don’t know I’m a volunteer, and they expect the same level of professionalism.” 


We drive back through the rain and the Christmas lights, my patrol over. “Merry Christmas!” calls Rob through the car window. He drives back off into the darkness with a cheery parting flash of blue lights. 

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