An army of unpaid civilian crimefighters will be hired to protect the streets of Sussex.

Sussex Police yesterday launched a recruitment drive to find 120 new special constables before the end of next year.

The recruits will be unpaid but have the same powers of arrest, equipment and training as full-time officers.

Most hold down full-time jobs while completing their police hours at evenings and weekends.

The recruitment drive is despite a damning report which said Sussex Police was failing to keep hold of its “front-line crimefighters”.

But Katy Bourne, Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner, denied the civilians were replacing full-time officers and claimed the drive to recruit specials was “nothing to do” with cuts.

She said: “This is certainly not policing on the cheap. In fact earlier this year we announced we would be recruiting 80 full-time new officers.

“It was my election pledge to increase volunteering in Sussex and increasing the number of special constables is a significant part of that.

“Also, they bring in a whole diversity of life experience to the role. Their dedication to the job is amazing – in fact that’s why we call them ‘special’.”

The 380 specials already working for the force mostly work in neighbourhood policing teams and spend at least four hours a week on the beat.

Special Constable Colin Tribe volunteers with the Brighton and Hove Neighbourhood Policing Team and also works full time for the Brighton Marina Estate Management Company.

He said: “We have to qualify and pass through the process – we have to be of the right calibre. There’s no pecking order – we are treated exactly the same as the regular officers. We use the equipment and we are there to support them.”

Assistant Chief Constable Robin Merrett of Sussex Police said: “If you go back in history, policing was always about citizens coming together to protect their communities.

“Working as a special constable gives members of the community the opportunity to get right into the heart of Sussex Police and ultimately the communities we serve.”

Police watchdog the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary criticised the force for planning to cut the overall proportion of frontline officers as it tries to save £52 million by 2015.

Overall, Sussex Police aims to slash 271 jobs across the force in a bid to save money.