THERE is nowhere in the country with a special constabulary growing quicker than in Essex.

More than 120 new volunteer officers have joined the ranks over the last year with 475 specials now in post.

They have the same police powers, uniforms and equipment as regular officer but do not get paid - only reimbursed for expenses.

So what motivates people to give up their time to help protect and serve Colchester?

After a career of three decades in the fire service in London, Pete Richards could have been forgiven for taking time out to tend the garden, learning to fish or taking cooking classes.

But still fit and active now at the age of 53, he gives up his own time to volunteer as a police officer using his skills in public service to give back to the community.

After completing an intensive training programme he has now been serving for 18 months.

He said: “I did think about taking time out and relaxing but public service is a calling – it is either in your or it isn’t.

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“I could see there was a gap in the police service – officers going out single crewed for example – and if I could help then I wanted to.

“I’m still physically fit and I like to learn new things, be active and keep my mind active and policing fits in with all of that.

“Lots of people sit back on their armchair and criticise because it is easy to do that, but I wanted to get up and do something about it.

“There are transferable skills from my time as a firefighter like learning how to deal with the public.

“In my working life I dealt with serious major disasters and that is going to stand me in good stead when things aren’t going so well.”

After spells volunteering in Clacton, generally in Colchester and on specialised operations with units including the Online Investigation Team, Mr Richards has now taken on a role in Team 10 – a new group dedicated to improving Colchester town centre.

He said: “I am really excited about it, we are going to be given some extra training and hopefully make a big difference.

“We want to make it a hostile environment for criminals.

“If you are an aggressive beggar then it will not be the place for you.

“It is going to make a big difference, not only with enforcement but if people genuinely need help then hopefully we can provide it for them or signpost them to the right place.

“We feel really supported by Chief Insp Shaun Kane who has backed us with stop and search powers which we will use if we have grounds to do so and really try and get drug and weapons off the streets.”

Despite giving up his time – approximately 40 hours per month – free of charge, Mr Richards said he feels like he is treated equally by everyone in the force.

He said: “I think it is a perception from the public that being a special constable is a different job and I am sure the job has been different over the years.

“But at the moment because of the shortage of frontline police officers special constables are fully integrated.

“Pretty much every department is open to us and there are so many opportunities.”

IN order to fit in up to 40 hours per month around her work commitments at a boutique hotel, Jade Smith often has to grab a nap between her two shifts.

The 22-year-old has already been volunteering for more than two years and has worked her way up to the role of acting sergeant where she mentors a small team of other specials encouraging them to complete development plans and work their way up to milestones such as independent patrol status.

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For her, a career in the regular police force is still very much a viable option.

“As my days off are usually during the week and I work shifts too I can fit it around my friends and family.

“Sometimes I'll even finish my day job, have a little nap then go in for a shift.

“It's hard to explain unless your experiencing it first hand but it is fun, you work with lovely people, gain so much confidence and every shift is different.

“You never know what to expect.

“We attend anything from civil disputes to domestics, mental health incidents, people feeling suicidal, people being violent, drink and drug drivers, firearms incidents, missing people and delivering next of kin messages.

“When you are re-uniting someone missing with their family, saving someone from wanting to kill themselves or arresting someone who has beaten their partner black and blue it is the most rewarding thing.”

Miss Smith has already worked in roles with specialist police officers to see what other areas of the force can offer.

“Everyone has a preference but I love working with the regulars or doing attachments with the dog unit or traffic as you expand your knowledge so much more and they are such a laugh to work with,” she added.

“In this type of job you need laughter with colleagues.”

Like many special officers, Miss Smith often documents the ups and downs of her volunteering shifts on social media so they public can see even though they are not being paid, people know they can trust and rely on her and her peers.

She said: “I wouldn't necessarily say it's encouraged upon us, I think it's more wanting to show the communities that were exactly the same as a regular officer and have the same powers as well as attending the same jobs as they would.

“It is letting them know we help them too.”

People wanting to become a special constable have to pass competency and fitness tests before a thorough vetting process.

Then they must complete 20 days of classroom training before they are attested.

Training sessions are available in intensive four week blocks or on alternative weekends for five months.

For more information visit essex.police.uk/join-the-police/special-constabulary/