POLICE chiefs have defended their decision to call in a public relations firm to help improve the image of a new call-handling centre in North Yorkshire.

More modern control rooms and communication systems were introduced by the county constabulary in January this year - but it has not been welcomed by all.

There have been complaints from the public that phones sometimes go unanswered, contacting a specific officer can be a lengthy procedure, while operators' perceived lack of local knowledge has been blamed for police taking too long to respond to some emergencies.

Harrogate-based Cicada has been appointed to promote the new system and to highlight how the public can get the most from it.

But the decision to call in marketing professionals has prompted fresh controversy, with Police Federation members claiming the £1,400 cost of a six-month contract would have been better spent on the call-handling centre itself.

Yesterday, deputy chief constable Peter Walker acknowledged there have been some difficulties with the new systems at Newby Wiske headquarters and at the Fulford Road police station in York.

However, he emphasised Cicada's brief is not to gloss over any problems, but to help the public better understand how the call centres work - and therefore get the best from them.

He said: "Using public relations companies is not something new, in fact, Cicada handled a Press conference last July when we found out a Sunday newspaper was door-stepping an officer who had gone through a sex-change operation.

"We used to employ our own marketing people but recently took the decision to redeploy those staff and use the money we saved to buy in professional help when we need it.

"On this occasion - as there was growing feeling of insecurity caused by stories about the new call centres - it seemed sensible to call in media experts to help us get our message across."

The North Yorkshire Police Authority has also employed Newcastle's public relations firm Bergmans to represent the organisation since the scandal over initiation rites and allegations of harassment at Harrogate Police Station in the mid-1990s.

Yesterday, clerk Jeremy Holderness also supported the principle of buying in help from the private sector.

"We could employ our own people, which would not be cost-effective, or engage someone who is a professional in the field. We have chosen the latter as they are more likely to be able to provide the media with what they want,'' he said.