Up to 25,000 police community support officers are set to be patrolling the streets of England and Wales by 2008.
Community support officers reassure the public, police say
BBC News Online asks how this police support service, launched in late 2000 to much scepticism, is now regarded by regular officers and crime reduction groups.
Community Support Officers (CSOs) were introduced with the aim of tackling low level crime and anti-social behaviour, and there are currently about 3,500 working in England and Wales.
The Home Office five-year plan announced by David Blunkett on Monday will see an extra 5,000, on top of the 15,000 announced recently in the government's spending
review, bringing the total number by 2008 to 25,000.
Police Superintendents' Association chief Rick Naylor said: "In various parts of the country they are working very, very well with regular officers.
"I have got no qualms whatsoever welcoming the extra 20,000 bodies."
Mr Naylor said that while falling crime figures do not automatically reduce people's fear of crime, the visible presence of CSOs on the streets does reassure the public.
"Normal police get pulled off the streets - they get sent to do football matches and demonstrations and murder enquiries. Sometimes they are away from their communities for quite protracted periods," he said.
"The biggest advantage of CSOs is that they are there with the public all of the time and the public get to know them. The public have been telling us for many years they want to see that on the streets."
Mr Naylor added that the CSOs were able to deal with relatively minor offences, such as vandalism, anti-social behaviour and neighbourly disputes, that regular officers often could not find time for.
Association of Chief Police Officers president Chris Fox agreed that CSOs have "had a successful impact on one level, that is being visible and contactable and there for people to talk to".
But he added: "What we don't know is how their authority will hold up if challenged."
He said that CSOs' limited powers could lead to them being viewed as "toothless tigers" and that the public must be aware they are backed up by regular police.
COMMUNITY SUPPORT OFFICERS
Salary up to £22,000
Role to support patrols, tackle anti-social behaviour; in London to combat terrorism and reassure public
Uniformed, with a flat hat
Powers include issuing fixed penalties and ability to detain people for 30 minutes
But no power of arrest
Three weeks training
Around 3,500 CSOs across England and Wales
Mr Fox said that as long as there was flexibility on the relative numbers of CSOs and police employed in different areas, depending on varying crime levels, the extra CSOs would be "a real addition to the police armoury".
Crime reduction charity Crime Concern welcomed the move to more CSOs, pointing to the success of neighbourhood wardens who have a "similar remit" to CSOs.
Crime had fallen by 28% in 84 areas with neighbourhood wardens, while there had also been a 10% decline in fear of mugging and street robbery, it said.
"This learning bodes well for the government's community support officers scheme and shows this type of approach helps reduce people's fear of crime," chief executive Roger Howard said.
But the Police Federation, representing rank-and-file officers, has called it "premature and rash" to increase CSO numbers without formally evaluating the impact of existing officers.
"It is still early days with regards to community support officers," said chairman Jan Berry.
"The role of CSOs must be fully clarified before a national roll out, and there must be national standards for their training, which is commensurate to their responsibilities."
Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart said in the House of Commons earlier this month that there would be a national evaluation of CSOs, and that it would inform the development of their role.