I won’t lie: you often hear cops grumbling about being “social workers”. This usually accompanies tasks that are not seen as “real police work” (whatever that is) and any analysis of policework is going to have to address this extent to which policing is predominantly not about crime. Even where it does involve crime, it is not predominantly about law and enforcement, despite the popular myths.
So if the police are busy not enforcing the criminal law and attending to crime by bringing offenders to book, what do they actually do all day? The Economist seemed surprised to find that it involved “social work, relationship counselling and a spot of psychiatry.” We’ve known this since the beginning of policing. It’s absolutely nothing new.
OFFICER, WHAT DO YOU DO ALL DAY?
There probably isn’t a police officer in the land that hasn’t offered marital and financial advice, who hasn’t sat with someone at the lowest point in their lives and held their hand, listening. Most of us have assumed responsibility for people who are likely to cause themselves harm and so there are various reinforcements as to why a complaint is made that we are de facto social workers, therapists and psychiatrists. We do see out of hours social services deflecting demand to the police that is better managed by them in the ideal world I don’t live in. We know that some of this demand is deflected purely because of other agencies’ inability to service it. Many of these tasks do not need a police officer, strictly speaking, either for legal or any other reason. So we see the requests for “safe and well checks” on the elderly or children who may be at risk, just as we see those same requests coming from mental health crisis teams, who have in some instances decided (without reference to the police on whom such duties then fall) that they will no longer undertake any work at all that isn’t situated in A&E or police custody. And if this work could be done by social services or mental health crisis teams, even if it should be done by social services or mental health teams, does this not mean that I’m becoming a social worker if I’m doing tasks that more properly sit with them?
Of course it doesn’t – although there is a difference between the police going to an address where it is necessary to prevent a breach of the peace and with a view to using powers under the Children Act 1989 that only the police have, and going to an address just to do a kind of check-up that any competent professional could undertake whether that be a social worker, a police officer or a teacher. But it is not that difference that defines policework. Most police work involves the police doing a multitude of tasks that many professions and individual citizens could do. So it has to be something else that defines it.
This moves us on to the need to do “a spot of psychiatry”. I don’t recall doing a medical degree or ten years of post-graduate training and qualification, but here I am, called upon in the middle of the night to make certain kinds of medical decision. Often without the ability to get any support from the health system about whether someone’s presentation should be triggering alarm bells of a particular volume, I am expected to discern criminal and behavioural issues from medical and mental health ones. (As if those things are in any way discreet entities!) I’ve sometimes had to decide on healthcare pathways for people with medical needs I haven’t got the first clue about, in circumstances where the decision may have long-standing medical (and legal!) consequences. The role of police officers in responding to incidents involving mental ill-health has been noted for fifty years in policing research, going back as far Egon BITTNER in the 1960s. Very memorably for the purposes of this post, US academic Linda TEPLIN referred to police officers in the title of one of her pieces in the 1990s as “Street Corner Psychiatrists.” I suppose, in fairness to the proposition, I should admit possession of a copy of the Oxford Handbook of “Emergencies in Psychiatry” in my collection. (It’s always best to know thine enemy!)
On the other hand, we know that the political vision of policing at the current time is that we should “reduce crime: nothing more, nothing less” and we keep hearing the rhetoric about “single-minded crime fighters.” This was always going to jar with reality. The very body of policing research that I referred is replete with findings that crime plays only a very small part of the overall demand faced by the police – and that crime may actually not be the most important thing to the public anyway.
READING THE CHILDREN ACT
I reflect upon the last month at work and can recall many, many conversations with members of the public about legal and social issues that were absolutely nothing to do with the police and / or the criminal law. A particularly rewarding hour was spent with a woman and her 16yr old daughter discussing the Children Act because of ongoing dispute with her ex-husband about access to her younger daughter, whom Dad had not returned as per their court agreement. Not unnaturally, the woman thought, “He’s breaking the court order” and she phoned her solicitor. The solicitor said, “You need to go to the police and tell them it’s their duty to go and find the girl and return her to you.” So even less unnaturally, she came to the police and didn’t fully understand why front office staff told her that the issue was not a police matter and she should contact a solicitor. Surely solicitors know more about the law than the police? Not always. Suffice to say, that by the end of the hour, I’d convinced her that we wanted to be as helpful as we could possibly be despite having no legal authority in her situation and having quickly reminded myself of parts of the Children Act that don’t feature in police training – because they don’t affect the police – I gave her references to the law, some practical advice and off she went armed with the right information to take the issues forward. She even rang me the next day to thank me and tell me how it had worked and that her daughter was back, safe and well. She would address the longer-term problem via the courts and her solicitor.
Not police work. Not even social work. Just advice to the public, hopefully helpful.
I’ve never seen those parts of policing that are connected to social care and family law processes as “social work”. I don’t see those parts of policing that are connected to mental health as “a spot of psychiatry.” To go back to BITTNER, whose sociology and criminology I admire, policing is what happens when “something’s happening that ought not to be happening about which someone ought to do something NOW!” It is the word ‘NOW!’ that defines policing, regardless of how we got here. If someone needs access to mental health services and they somehow come into contact with the police, officers don’t usually detain that person under the Mental Health Act – they don’t even do it very often. Far more likely, the officer will give advice or support, sign-posting them to people who can help, contacting those people on behalf of the person or enabling access to relevant services, possibly via the ambulance service or A&E. This is quite correct – just like officers have to judge whether a dispute about the sale of goods is a civil matter where people are sign-posted to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or a solicitor; or whether it has involved a deception and become a fraud.
Other academics like WADDINGTON have characterised policing as “order maintenance.” Your mental health emergency can be sign-posted or referred where it is unconnected to any form of social disorder where you are threatened or threatening. Once that social disorder threshold is passed – irrespective of whether that constitutes an offence – officers are expected to start intervening. This may involve starting to think in terms of detention to ensure the restoration or “order”, but sometimes we influence outcomes by just talking to people.
DOING EVERYONE ELSE’S WORK
Police officers sometimes clear up debris after a road collision – we don’t make the road immaculate and take the detritus to the tip, we just shift it to the side of the road so no more accidents will happen. Once that is achieved, the actual clear up of broken cars and road furniture, the proper repair of the road and it’s accoutrements as well as disposal of it all is a matter for the local authority who we contact. This initial shifting of the debris is not local authority work – it’s policework because it needs to happen NOW! and is connected to the maintenance of safety and order (on the roads).
Police officers sometime help people shift their furniture upstairs when they are about to be flooded – we don’t stop doing more important things than that when lives are at risk, but where officers are free in circumstances of social emergency, they have been known to muck in.
That’s why police officers sometimes agree to move mental health patients from one place to another, despite guidance saying that the ambulance service or mental health services should do it. Agreeing to muck in, might mean that we prevent the patient going missing for the fourth time in two days and the investment of a couple of cops doing a twenty-minute job might mean we save hours and hours of police time in preventing further absences by a patient clearly unable to be contained in the place he is currently detained. I have been known to say “No” to requests to move people, because saying no is sometimes without consequence to the police and the public at a time when other 999 demands mean I can’t spare the resources. But last week, I proactively offered help when no request was made, because it was in the interests of the public at a point where I could spare two cops for twenty minutes.
“Something’s happening that ought not to be happening about which someone ought to do something NOW!”
A definition of policework which means I might get to do any number of things that might be better done by others and which falls squarely under their remit. It’s just that they’re not here, for whatever good or bad reason. Everything that the police do is necessary because somebody, somewhere either isn’t able or willing, they aren’t competent or responsible, but most usually they are just not there, for whatever reason. Whilst you’re busy debating it all, this thing it still needs doing NOW, because it contributes to social order and social safety – and that means it’s down to the police, more often than not.
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