I’m sure if Chief Constables had endless resources, some of them would be deployed routinely to places where we currently see them occasionally patrolling and more often reacting. If I was uncommitted, operationally, I often used to park outside A&E and go for a wander around, especially late in the evning or early hours when the place was often rammed with people who had fallen, literally, out of our night time economy into our health system. Apart from the fact that when I first joined the police I very quickly worked out that there were some very nice staff in there with a kettle, I also worked out that you could often help keep a lid on a frantic environment just by being there. If I were Chief Constable of Utopia, I’d ensure a more supportive police presence in those places where dedicated staff all too often face abuse.
Of course, nothing prevents this happening now. We’ve only got around 200 departments in the country and to fix a shift pattern to ensure constant coverage, you’d only have to find 1,000 officers out of a workforce that is still over 125,000. Doesn’t sound like a lot of people, given the size of the police and those officers could be part of building safer therapeutic environments and preventing crime against NHS staff. The officer could even be part of ensuring that certain demand which tends to drift towards the police is prevented at a point where intervfention by one cop could save a whole response team from bringing normal policing to a halt in order to look for a vulnerable person.
In theory, you could go and quantify how much benefit you think you’ll gain. You could count crimes in A&E to see what could be prevented; you could count missing patient reports from A&E; you could count requests for ‘safe and well’ checks, which is a subject that came up recently. The Metropolitan Police stated at a conference recently that they received over 12,000 requests from other agencies in a single month for ‘safe and well’ checks and when they dip-sampled a selection, they found just 4% involved something that required the police. The other 96% were tasks that anyone could have done and where the duty of care was owed by the reporting agency, not by the police.
So to what extent are the police here to do what others could and should do?
FOUR FORTY-FIVE PHONE CALLS
No-one here is saying that there isn’t an occasion where the police have a clear role but analysis of calls for safe and well checks reveal obvious backgrounds. The four forty-five phone call is infamous, with added demand on Fridays. Various agencies ring in connection with people they want checking, most of whom are not ‘missing people’ or individuals whose medical welfare is at immediate or even at general risk. And given that such incidents would rarely, if ever, allow the police to force off a door under s17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, one might wonder what the reporting agency want the police to do, that they couldn’t?
GP surgeries have out-of-hours GPs – they also have phones and access to computers that can write letters. A&E departments could issue advice to all patients on arrival at A&E. Children’s Services, community mental health teams and others could all consider how to deal with ‘safe and well’ situations where the police are not going to add anything to the situation, other than resource which, dy definition, will have to stop doing something to start doing this. There’s actually and more insidious issue: for the police to take enough information from a reporting agency to deal properly, brief the officer who will attend and then actually do it, will often take longer than if the original agency just dealt with it. So there’s a perception that two hours of police time is less valuable that fifteen minutes making phone calls and / or banging out a standard letter, or otherwise dealing yourself.
It’s not that the police don’t want to be helpful where they can be: this is about re-examining those things we do that cost a lot of money, but which are not the best use of resources. Police forces all over the place are looking at hard at this and I noticed recently that West Midlands Police is going to close front offices of all their police stations. No-one thinks this is a brilliant idea, but the fact is they cost millions to run and aren’t used very often by a public who have specifically stated that they prefer telephone, internet and social media contacts. So those millions can be reinvested making other systems better whislt also trimming resource at a time of cuts.
One problem with ‘safe and well checks’ is, in isolation, you might look and think “It’s not that much of an ask, Mrs MIGGINS didn’t show up at the GP today, could you just check she’s OK?” But when this call comes at 4:45pm on Friday of a Bank Holiday weekend and you just know that once you hang up that professional is going to a barbeque and you won’t be able to get any more information until Tuesday, you have to start asking a stack of questions that they already know the answer to. Have you tried ringing? Have you tried ringing her next of kin? If not, why not? Have you got any other methods of communication?
When I last changed my GP I couldn’t believe the information they wanted that would allow contact: they’ve got my address, my home phone number, my mobile number and my email address; plus a mobile number and email address for my wife as my next of kin. They even have the capacity to send me text messages. All of that information is therefore available to anyone in secondary care who has to deal with me, whether I’m in A&E or have been referred for specliast care. How often when safe and well checks are requested is this information made known with a confirmation that all those avenues have been tried and failed, hence concerns are rising and that’s why the phone call to the police has been made? Never, ever – in my own professional experience. I’ve even known it, by the time the phone call has lasted until 4:55pm that some are actively trying to end the phone call before all the relevent questions have been asked and information obtained, because it’s going home and “leave it with you” time. I was on duty in circumstances like this where the GP was in effect reporting the criminal poisoning of potentially several elderly victims and wanted to just “let you know and leave it with you.” No!
YOU CAN ONLY SPEND YOUR POUND ONCE
The role of the police service is to prevent crime, to bring offenders to justice, to protect life and property and maintain the Queen’s Peace. It’s always been the case that the police have been drawn into other areas, as my favourite criminological saying goes, “Policing’s what happens when something’s happening that ought not to be happening about which somebody ought to do something now!” By that yardstick, anyone else’s failure to plan and prepare is police business. Egon BITTNER seperately said, “There is nothing that could not become the legitimate business of the police.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything IS the legitimate business of the police or that it must become so.
They say you can only spend your pound once: this is also true of police officers. Most inspectors doing my previous job, a 999 response inspector, overseeing the minute by minute demands of a police area, are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. This is also true of Chief Superintendents and of Chief Constable’s too – these are the three ‘command ranks’, very generally. Inspectors runs teams and departments, Chief Superintendents run geographical areas and specialist departments, Chief Constables run police forces – we’ve each got a finite number of resources and we can only use them once.
I want to be clear that this is not a point about cuts, politics or austerity – this has always been true. The point I’m making is, that we have to now ask what we want our police service to spend their time doing, because if we agree to check Mrs MIGGINS before the surgery has explored all the other methods by which to check on her, then we have to do it for the other 12,906 people that the Metropolitan Police were asked to check in September. That is a lot of resource and whilst doing that work they are, dy definition, not doing other things which will may include providing a police presence in A&E or being in your night-time economy, shifting on rowdy groups or arresting drunks. They’re also not driving in your cul-de-sac at 3am, checking your car is secure and that your back gate or your garage is not wide open. What we’re not doing is checking the bail conditions of those entangled in the justice system so that they are not out when they shouldn’t be, robbing you blind. These are just some of the things that cops do when there’s ‘free’ time – we look out for you and your stuff whilst you sleep or go out to have a life. But when a call comes in, we often have to deal – so let’s look at what’s coming in and ask what we want our police to spend their time doing.
I sometimes think it’s a shame that we think far too casually about these incredibly expensive assets.
The Mental Health Cop blog
– won the ConnectedCOPS ‘Top Cop’ Award for leveraging social media in policing.
– won the Digital Media Award from the UK’s leading mental health charity, Mind
– won a World of Mentalists #TWIMAward for the best in mental health blogs
– was highlighted by the Independent Commission on Policing & Mental Health
– was referenced in the UK Parliamentary debate on Policing & Mental Health
– was commended by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the UK Parliament.