What it's like to be a police special: People always need our help
There is nothing quite like ‘the rollercoaster ride of policing’ for special sergeant Matt Hickinbottom.
But what is slightly unusual about the 40-year-old is that he was originally a full-time officer with West Midlands Police but left the force after feeling himself pulled towards his interests in film and television production.
Now he divides his time between making films for a wealth management company in Worcestershire and volunteering for Staffordshire Police.
“It’s usually the other way around – people go from being a special to a regular officer so I’m a bit different. I had this other career opportunity and it felt right to pursue that.
“But I didn’t want to waste the training I had been given and I was happy to volunteer my time. Now I get to do both so it’s the best of both worlds,” says Matt, who lives in Dudley.
The father of two, who is based at Wombourne Police Station, says many people are surprised to learn that specials have the same powers and duties as regular police officers.
This may include assisting at the scene of road accidents and fires, patrolling crime hotspots, carrying out door-to-door enquiries and visiting victims of crime
“The general public don’t really see in any difference if they are dealing with a special or a regular officer – we wear the same uniforms, carry the same kit, we respond in exactly the same way and we try to help in the exactly the same way. “It’s a fair bit of responsibility too because we have the access to the same information and resources as the regular police,” he tells Weekend.
All new recruits receive 15 training days over eight weekends to equip them with basic knowledge in law and procedure as well as skills in handing equipment such as handcuffs and batons and self-defence.
After this they are ready to accompany regular officers on patrol and will spend a further 12 to 18 months, with the help of a mentor, getting experience and further knowledge in a range of policing duties to allow them to work independently.
Like regular officers, they have to ensure they are always up to date with current laws, legislation and procedural matters which may include undergoing online training on new powers. There are almost 20,000 special constables serving police forces across the UK and in Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent there are around 250. They are required to work 16 hours a month but Matt says that many, like himself, are more than happy to work more than that because they know they are making a valuable contribution.
“There have been times when I have been the only officer available to go out to see someone needing help. If I hadn’t come on duty, that person would have had a very different experience so I know I have made a difference. Helping people is what it’s all about so it’s extremely rewarding. I also believe the more you put in, the more you get out of it,” he tells us.
Matt, who previously spent 10 years volunteering as a special for West Midlands Police before joining Staffordshire three years ago, has also taken on responsibility for stepping up patrols at nearby Wolverhampton Halfpenny Green Airport, which was targeted by thieves in March.
“Through high visibility and plain clothes patrols, we are aiming to support their existing security and be a visible deterrent. The airport is part of the community so it’s support the businesses and people who work there,” says Matt.
While the nature of the work hasn’t changed much over the years, he tells us there are differences in how crimes are investigated.
“People are always going to need help whether it’s a road accident, domestic incident, a break-in at a shop or something worse but the way we are dealing with them is changing all the time and changing for the better.
“We have some much more in our arsenal than we did 15 years ago. There have been improvements in crime scene investigation and CCTV. There has been advances in how people protect themselves from crime and what is put in place to catch people,” he explains.
Even when he hasn’t signed on for a shift, he is never too far away from his police work. “You’re never really off-duty because if you see something you want to help especially because you’ve had the training to deal with it.
“I was going on holiday and had my wife and two young kids in the car in Somerset when a vehicle in front of us crashed and hit a tree. I had my yellow police jacket in the car so I put it on. I managed to stop the traffic, drag the guy out of the car, which had started to leak fuel, before it set on fire and give him first aid.
“When the emergency services arrived, I was their ‘go-to’ person because I had been first on the scene but all the time I’m thinking about having my wife and kids in the car because we are going on holiday. But I did what needed to be done. I’ve arrested shoplifters before when I’ve been off duty and assisted a girl in Dudley who had been stabbed with a knife. You never switch off and it’s become second nature to help,” he tells us.
His desire to help people does mean that he finds it difficult when he runs out of options to assist someone in need. “The biggest challenge is seeing the people you can’t help, it can be heart-breaking. You will have done all you can to help them but the rest is beyond your control or you need other agencies to step in because there may be things like health issues.
“It’s hard when you’ve built a rapport with someone and you see them not getting the help they need but you can only do what you can do – we are only human after all,” adds Matt.
But one of his favourite aspects of the job is the variety of the work. “There is not such thing as a typical shift because policing is a 24/7 job. You never really know what you’re going to be doing when you come in but that’s what make it’s enjoyable and keeps you sharp,” Matt tells us.
“It’s a lot of fun and you get to see so many different things and meet so many different people. I can’t think of any other job that’s like the rollercoaster ride of policing. Being a special is not just something you do as a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.”