They have been called “plastic policemen”, “Blunkett's Bobbies” and “cardboard coppers”, but one Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) in Watford believes their luminous presence in the town provides a positive reassurance against local crime and disorder.
It is six years since the first PCSOs were assigned to the town, when 14 officers were split between Watford and Stevenage.
Now Hertfordshire Constabulary has 261 PCSOs working in all wards across the county, including 38 youth and school officers and six at mobile police stations.
PCSO Tony Stopford, 55, was among the first to start work in Watford in March 2003, having spent 25 years working for Unigate Dairies.
Wearing glasses meant he could not fulfil his ambitions to become a police officer when he was younger, but he jumped at the chance to join as a PCSO.
He said: “It's different. It's not 9-5. I have never liked a job like that. I enjoy meeting and greeting people. In the town centre, people come up to you and just say thank you for being here.”
It is the town centre that is PCSO Stopford's “beat”, based at Kings Court Community Police Station and patrolling inside the ring road as part of the Watford Safer Neighbourhood Team.
PCSOs have often been criticised for their lack of “power” but they can issue fixed penalty notices, confiscate alcohol and tobacco, take the name and address of someone acting anti-socially and have the power of entry to save life or prevent damage.
PCSO Stopford, whose son James is also a community support officer, said: “We're not supposed to deal with anything that could be a violent situation. But I wouldn't turn away from violence. If it's happening in front of me, I would have to get involved.”
PCSOs spend more than 80 per cent of their shift on the street and walking along the high street, PCSO Stopford is stopped by several members of the public, sometimes just to say hello.
A radio strapped to his shoulder, however, could call him to the scene of an incident at a moments notice. He is often called to help drunks and the homeless, and also comforts victims of crime.
Recently he came to the aid of an elderly woman who had her purse stolen and now gently instructs passing shoppers to keep their bags closed at all times to prevent “purse dipping”.
PCSO Stopford said: “It's a uniformed presence. People see the uniform. They know if they're in trouble they can come to us.
“It's been the same job I signed up for. I just think it does give people reassurance that there are people out here watching and looking after them.”