They look like police officers and they often pretend to be police officers but, as the tragic story of the young boy who drowned while two community support officers (CSOs) stood by affirms, they most definitely are not.
Nevertheless, Manchester police have staunchly defended their CSOs, saying they "did the right thing", lacking as they did the training for water emergencies, by summoning help from a fully trained police officer.
However, what invites suspicion are three things. Firstly, the two CSOs were not made available to give evidence at the Coroner’s inquest held yesterday into the death of ten-year-old Jordon Lyon - where they could have been questioned about their role in the tragedy.
Secondly, Jordon's eight-year-old step-sister, who the young lad was vainly trying to rescue, was dragged from the water by two 60-year-old fishermen, who dived into the lake to render assistance. Thirdly, when a real policeman did turn up, he conducted his own "risk assessment" and waded in to try and help. By that time, it transpires, Jordon was dead.
One might be less suspicious if we did not have our own experiences of the uselessness of CSOs. I recall recently walking back from the local shop, seeing a gang of youths on the pavement, splitting up a bulk back of soft drinks between them. The best guess was they had just nicked them from the shop – which is plagued with such gangs raiding their stock.
As it happened, two CSO were on the scene, one male one female, walking up the same stretch of pavement. Deep in conversation though, I doubt if they even noticed what was going on as they passed the lads without even pausing.
Not long after that, I found myself having to step off the pavement into the road, confronted with another "salt and pepper" pair of CSOs walking two-abreast on the narrow strip, again so deep in conversation that they did not even see me. Nice work if you can get it, I thought – a gentle stroll round town chatting with your mates and then back home for tea.
Unsurprisingly, a spokesman for the Police Federation is now calling for the abolition of CSOs as "a failed experiment", as such personnel are not capable of dealing with emergency situations. "The public are being fooled," said the spokesman. "We are sending people out there who are dressed as police officers."
The trouble is – as we will see on Sunday in the Booker column – the police have rather more important things to do.