What are the differences between police officers, special constables and PCSOs?

What are the differences between police officers, special constables and PCSOs?

Police officers, special constables and Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) are all employed by police forces within the UK, yet they all have different roles and powers.

Police Officers

Police officers enforce the law within the UK by apprehending criminals, preventing and detecting crime and maintaining public order. They have a wide range of powers provided under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and will be the most commonly recognisable members of the police force by the public.

Special constables

Special constables are more similar to police officers than PCSOs. They are unpaid, part-time volunteers who receive training to work with and support regular police officers. They have the same powers as police officers and usually wear the same uniform. Consequently, to a member of the public, they do not appear to be any different from police officers. They will often be engaged in similar work as regular police officers, such as foot patrol, car patrol (alone, with another special constable or with a regular police officer), attending incidents and the policing of major events.

Often, special constables are members of the public who have an interest in helping to police their local community. As such, they will be regularly involved in neighbourhood policing and tackling anti-social behaviour. Generally, special constables are not involved in specialist policing, such as the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) as they require higher levels of training. However, as with regular police officers, they may be required to attend court and give evidence following an arrest or involvement in a major incident.

Police Community Support Officers

Whilst PCSOs are employed and managed by their local police force, they act as support staff to regular officers and only have a limited number of powers. However, PCSOs, unlike special constables, are paid, full-time, uniformed members of police staff. The main purpose of a PCSO is to provide a visible and accessible uniformed presence in local communities in order to reduce anti-social behaviour and reassure local people. Their uniform identifies them as employees of the police force, yet it is distinctive from that of a regular police officer or special constable. PCSOs work on the frontline of local police forces, usually patrolling the beat, offering assistance to members of the public and supporting other police staff.

PCSOs are employed to undertake some of the tasks that do not require regular police officers to use the full extent of their powers. This enables regular police officers to focus their attention on more serious issues. However, PCSOs do have some limited powers, including:

  • issuing fixed penalty notices;
  • confiscating alcohol and tobacco;
  • demanding details of people who are behaving anti-socially;
  • removing vehicles;
  • detaining someone until a police officer arrives; and
  • the power to enter to save life or prevent damage.


Unlike regular police officers and special constables, PCSOs do not have powers of arrest. However, they do have the power to make a citizen’s arrest under article 24A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

Whilst there are differences between police officers, special constables and PCSOs, they are all members of police staff and often work closely together.

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