Controllers and Call Handlers

Call handlers are gateways into the police – officers get despatched to almost everything after a call handler answers a 999 call or a 101 non-emergency call and agrees that it is appropriate to send someone. They must ‘grade’ the job to a suitable response time, start the process of getting officers despatched if it is an emergency and start logging and checking information pertinent to the handling of the incident.  Often this involves remaining in discussion with the caller to elicit more information.

They work alongside what I will generically call ‘controllers’ – people who sit on the other end of police radios to the operational officers and between them all, they are a crucial part of the so-called frontline (whatever that is).

If non-police readers want to read a bit more about this role, please see the bottom section of this post.  The following blogs will be of relevance to Contact Centre staff / supervisors:

  • AWOL patients
  • If MH services are reporting patients AWOL whose location is known, the Code of Practice to the Mental Health Act makes it their responsibility to repatriate that person (Chapter 22 CoP MHA).
  • If police support is required – because of RAVE risks – then this can be done to support them; not to replace them.
  • Any report of dangerous, particularly vulnerable missing patients of ‘Part III’ patients, must be reported to the police immediately so you should inform duty supervisors immediately.
  • This applies whether their location is known or not and the police should be involved in their recovery ASAP.
  • Assaults by psychiatric patients on ward nurses or other patients –
  • This is the thing the police get wrong the most and getting it right is crucial to demonstrating that the police have responsibilities were not properly discharging too.
  • Patients who are assaulted and staff who are assaulted are entitled to report their crimes and to expect them to be properly investigated.
  • There should be no assumption that where a detained mental health patient has hurt someone, that it is ‘a waste of time’ or ‘not in the public interest’ or ‘something we can’t do anything about’.
  • An investigating police officer should be asked to look at it and supervisors should be involved from the start.
  • Assessments on private premises – 
  • The Police should attend these incidents if MH services are requesting police support because of RAVE risks; OR if they already have a warrant under s135(1) MHA.  (A warrant means the police MUST attend as only the police can execute it.)
  • If no warrant, but there are claims of RAVE risks, it would be helpful to all if you asked for early detail as to what these are.  Sergeants can decide whether we are sending two student constables in a panda, a firearms team or something in between the two which might involve officers with dogs, tasers, riot gear or none of that paraphernalia.
  • Also, if those RAVE risks comes from the person to be assessed, you could inform the MH professionals that the police officers will probably ask for a warrant under s135(1) MHA – don’t mind their response, just log the request and refer it to supervisors.
  • Calls to restrain patients who need enforced medication –
  • There is a genuine question as to whether the police have a legal authority to do this at all, in lieu of properly trained, equipped and skilled nursing professionals.
  • If requested to attend because of RAVE risks early information to the caller that the police will only be able to contain immediate threats whilst the NHS marshal their staff, resources and contingency plans will be helpful to all.
  • For example, this may mean if someone has armed themselves with weapons, it would be right for the police to ensure removal of the same, before then containing ongoing RAVE risks whilst NHS staff put plans in place.
  • Calls to transfer patients between MH facilities – 
  • This is a clinical function for MH trusts to undertake via their conveyance providers it is not automatically a police matter, if at all.
  • If police support is requested because MH trusts don’t have access to a (suitable) conveyance provider; the police role should be to contain immediate threats whilst it is decided the NHS invoke ad hoc their arrangements via duty managers / directors.
  • The police should not be moving people under restraint between facilities, unless it is literally a life-threatening situation for example, removal to A&E which can’t wait.
  • If police supervisors do agree that for a want of other options, it is appropriate for them to transfer patients, they should ensure clinical supervision of the patient (by doctors / nurses as well as paramedics) during the transfer, especially if ongoing restraint is needed which poses high risks.
  • Mental Health Crisis in a Private Premises – 
  • The police have no powers in a private dwelling to manage a mental health crisis unless there is an (attempted) criminal offence or an apprehended breach of the peace.
  • Where you despatching officers to jobs in a private dwelling, support to their decision-making could well come from the local Crisis Team who may have information which would assist a safe resolution of the job.
  • Officers and controllers / call handlers should also be considering, as appropriate – ambulance, emergency GP and / or crisis negotiator if there is a serious risk to life ongoing.


Controllers and call handlers can access intelligence and command and control systems, so that they can be a repository of information even while an officer is driving to an emergency.  Often, before an officer has even arrived at a call, the call handlers and / or controllers have established full nominal details, risk histories, convictions, previous address attendances, warning markers around all manner of subjects, including mental health, drugs, violence, which may affect how the officers approach an incident.  With certain types of call, they actually resolve the issue without the need to despatch an officer and often in order to do so, they refer some matters to their own supervisors or the duty inspector, before agreeing how to proceed.

They are KEY to the management of calls for service involving mental health matters.  This is true not only because they must identify calls which are emergencies and afford them appropriate priority, but also because they may often handle complex people making threats of suicide, sometimes talking to them for hours by phone, in order to try and elicit just enough information to know where to start a search.

Call handlers and controllers can consider whether someone, especially certain repeat or  persistent callers are actually people with potential mental health problems.  Forces are at various stages with their thinking about how to refer such cases to the neighbourhood policing team for that area, so that local officers may then liaise with health or social care services in order to see whether something might or should be done.


16 thoughts on “Controllers and Call Handlers

  1. A useful piece of information on a complex topic that usually ends up with a tug of war between the cops on the scene, the MH and Crisis teams and the NHS.
    The legislation around Police powers unfer the MHAct are a prime candidate for a re-write and de-complicationing (if you get my meaning).

    Keep up the good work


    1. Thanks – have got a few more ideas how to make the blog useable and some more posts in mind, but not loads. I’m approaching the end of what I want to say. Going to have period off after a couple of posts tonight and then start limiting myself to a weekly blog to get my life and my evenings back!

  2. What a refreshing change, someone in the service who actually recognises the fact; the quality and skills of Call Takers & Controllers are “KEY” – that rings true to so many aspects of policing (not just mental health) but sadly, it’s also a fact often forgotten / ignored, for a myriad of reasons.
    Thanks once again for the work you have done (so far).

    1. It’s simple for me: the point where the public interact with us is where we have to have the skills and flexibilty to absorb the demands fully, and unless we equip call handlers nad controllers to manage mental health jobs correctly at the start – some forces do, others don’t! – then we can hardly be surprised when it goes awry and absorbs more resources that it needed to.

      Thanks for the feedback – always glad to get it.

  3. Just copied this an emailed it to my job email.. I’m fed up of being called to return patients, like other day Hosp gave sec 3 patient day release then called police to get them returned cos they two hours late. Expensive taxi! I now have section an powers to quote, they use excuse they are dangerous!! If that is the Case how the hell do they get day release. MHA using reason person is sectioned to basically
    black mail the police. It’s easier for controllers to get bobby on beat to take flack rather than suffer consequences! All about arse covering just in case that wheel falls off.

    1. Yes, if dangerous – why give unescorted leave; if dangerous why wasn’t the person reported immediately, as per the CoP MHA (Ch22)? Which other laws do they wish the breach?
      Refer conflicts to supervisors, that’s what they’re for. Supervisors with repeat style conflicts should refer to managers and mention that if we PROPERLY do AWOL policies, reductions in volume of up to 50% can be seen, although this may have to involve consideration of legal threats and liabilities, or possibly the CQC.

  4. Hi, I have just retired from 24 years as a controller and the MHA was always one subject that use to get me going. Pity I’ve only found this website now, very useful. I felt we were often being used to stop gap aother agencies short coming. Many a time I tried to argue, in clear cut cases, that certain calls were not a police matter. Had one call once where I refused police attendence to attend a person HA because the patient had been given two hours home leave and not come back. In reply to my questions I had found out that the misper has taken two suitcases with them so I then asked why didn’t they stop him as clearly was planning to be away for more than 2 hours. They had also established he had gone home so I told them to get a section 135 warrant.
    Re Supervisors, well some have the backbone to support you, others don’t (but in those cases I would jump to the Duty Inspector!)

    1. What a pain! To be fair, it’s only existed for three months!! There is much demand that can be better managed or deflected in contact centres, control room, etc., but other stuff best dealt with by cops on street – it’s about striking that balance. Enjoy your retirement, sounds like you’ve earned it!

  5. Have often tried to explain to MH colleagues the different perspectives and the real demands on police staff when they make their urgent requests. This is really helpful and has been shared! Thank you.

  6. A single source of relevant information is long overdue as is proper training in relation to MH matters so that officers have the confidence to deal knowledgably with the Mental Health teams.

    1. That’s the general idea – so I’m happy if you think it fits the bill. Always happy to take feedback about what else could be included or how to make the site better.

  7. As a former controller and call handler, now working for a mental health trust in a CMHT, this is excellent advice, very clear and concise

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s