Civilian recruits will help police solve cybercrime under an expansion of the role of volunteers in England and Wales, the home secretary has said.
The plans include measures to give more power to support staff and volunteers.
Forces will be able to identify volunteers who specialise in accountancy or computing for cyber and finance inquiries, Theresa May said.
Unison, which represents police staff, says it was concerned it was a way to “plug the huge gap” left by cuts.
Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham echoed this concern and said the move sounded like a “back-door means” of filling cut posts and “could lead to policing on the cheap”.
But Mrs May said she was “committed to finishing the job of police reform”.
Since 1831, civilians have been able to exercise the full range of police powers in the shape of special constables.
‘Free up officers’
Potential volunteers in England and Wales currently have two options – become a special constable, or ask to become a police support volunteer. The latter role has no powers.
But the measures – which will form part of the Policing and Crime Bill – will allow volunteers to be given powers without becoming a special constable, while also creating a core list of powers reserved for police officers.
Mrs May said: “Police officers across the country carry out a wide range of duties, keeping the public safe and ensuring justice for the most vulnerable members of society.
“We value the essential role they play, but they cannot do this on their own.
“We want to help forces to create a more flexible workforce, bring in new skills and free up officers’ time to focus on the jobs only they can carry out.”
She said people with IT or accountancy skills were in “particular demand”, and could “work alongside police officers to investigate cyber or financial crime, and help officers and staff fight crime more widely”.
What is the role of volunteers in the police?
There are 16,000 volunteer police officers in England and Wales known as special constables.
Specials undergo training, wear police uniform and have the same powers in law as their “regular” colleagues.
They take on tasks such as foot patrol, crowd control and crime prevention and have to be available for at least 16 hours each month.
In addition, there are 9,000 volunteers performing a wide variety of different staff jobs in the police.
The union Unison, which surveyed police forces last year, says Kent has the largest number of volunteers (850), while volunteers in Thames Valley put in the most hours (70,000).
The survey identified more than 60 volunteer roles, ranging from mountain rescue to animal welfare, crime scene investigation to firearms licensing.
Mrs May’s proposals were aired last year in a consultation, which favoured creating uniformed police community support volunteers (PCSVs), and suggested civilians could carry out tasks like interviewing victims and taking witness statements.
Government officials confirmed some reforms will be taken forward, but the full details are due to be revealed later.
Mr Burnham called for Mrs May to “provide assurance” that the measures “won’t lead to standards being compromised or corners cut”.
“The concern is that these volunteers will not be checked or trained in the same way as those who volunteer as special constables,” he said.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said giving police volunteers more powers was a “huge mistake”.
“Volunteers cannot be deployed to tackle serious crime in the middle of the night, and they are free to absent themselves from the workplace at any time, because they have no contract of employment,” he said.
“This makes volunteers totally unsuitable for police forces that need to know they can turn out staff in an emergency.
“Having cut police budgets relentlessly, the government is clearly pinning its hopes on a volunteer army to plug the huge gap left by the loss of so many dedicated and skilled police staff.”
Mrs May’s measures will also confirm the abolition of the role of police traffic warden.
But BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw said this was a “technical change”, reflecting the fact that – since parking enforcement was decriminalised, with local authorities taking on the role – there are now only 18 traffic wardens employed by police.
Meanwhile, forces in Hampshire and Gloucestershire have already launched a pilot scheme to attract volunteers with digital skills to support “digital investigations”.
Under Mrs May’s reforms, volunteers are expected to be given the powers to make arrests and carry out stop-and-searches.
Dave Jones, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for citizens in policing, said: “The new approach to designating police powers will help the police service be more flexible when it comes to attracting and deploying volunteers with valuable skills, especially in situations where the full powers of a constable are not necessary.”