I have spent nearly 25yrs in the police. Nearer to 28 if you include my time as a special. Over that time the primary objective of the police has been;
- The preservation of life and the protection of property
- The prevention and detection of crime
- The maintenance of public order
This hasn’t changed. It’s the bedrock of the service the police provide. It’s the parameters within which we operate and the basis of the expectation the public have of us.
Working in the control room I see nearly every job that comes in for the area I cover. Burglary, robbery, missing persons, drugs, domestic violence, hate crime, anti social behaviour, neighbour disputes, parking problems, mental health incidents, concerns for welfare, death messages, road traffic accidents and more. The work we have done over my 25yrs experience hasn’t really reduced. With the exception of basic parking offences and noisy parties, there isn’t much I can point toward and say “we don’t do that anymore”.
Nearly every week there is another new piece of legislation that either adds new powers or creates new offences that the police are just expected to pick up.
The only thing I’ve seen reduce is our physical numbers. Boots on the ground.
Earlier this week I had 64 incidents on my screen. 11 of them were deployed to. Emergencies are deployed to immediately but those that can have a slower response can start to back up quite quickly. As far as resources were concerned my cupboard was bare. An Inspector approached me, concerned by the number of unresourced jobs and asked me to “get rid of what I could”. I had already worked through them but did so again. There was nothing I could pass to another agency or resolve by phone or other means. They all needed a police officer to attend and deal. We got through the day but the list didn’t really get any smaller.
Yet this isn’t new. In the mid 90’s I was a reserve in the divisional control room. If they were short staffed I would be called in to cover. Even then I can remember looking at the list of jobs balanced against resources in the same way.
We know that the number of police officers since the 90’s has increased (until recently) but the demand never seemed to change. When I was a young cop we were busy and struggled to meet demand. As an older cop, I see our current response officers in exactly the same place.
Did demand increase in such a way that increases in resources had little to no effect? Did increased resources allow us to put more staff into specialist roles (child abuse, sexual offences, high tech crime) leaving response policing with the same demands? Probably both to be fair.
As numbers of officers nationally reduce we find ourselves in a difficult place. We can make efficiencies, work smarter and think differently but eventually, notwithstanding our best efforts, we will not be able to meet demand. Many Chief Constables are now speaking out about the cuts and how detrimental it will be to service delivery.
The Home Secretary has been relentless in her pursuit of reform and we appear to be able to do nothing to convince her otherwise. So the only thing left for us to do is to reduce demand.
Yet here lies the rub. We provide a service. A service the public have come to expect. A service we have grown accustomed to giving over decades. We have also picked up work from other agencies, who when facing difficulties, have left shouldered work in our direction. Work they now come to expect. In some cases, we are now passing this work back to them but it is causing friction and great consternation by those we are refusing. The 4.55pm call on a Friday from social services or a care team. Children’s homes that report a child missing but when found at 1am 30 miles away by another force say they cannot collect as they are on their own or policy says they cannot do it. So who does it? We regularly pick up responsibility for matters because it falls within those three points above and comes with a “What might happen if we don’t” caveat.
As we struggle to service demand, saying “No” is going to become more common. I hate saying no. It goes completely against the grain. 25 years of helping and saying.. “Yes. I don’t know how but we will sort something” makes it very difficult to take a firm line but we are going to have to get used to it. The hard ground lies between public expectation and our tradition of response.
Two very simple examples. A cow in the road on a country lane near a bend. As it stands now we go and we go on an emergency response. Why? Well a cow makes a bit of a mess of a car if you hit one and there is a risk of injury to the driver/passengers. Yet swap the cow for a tractor pulling out of a field and we get no call. Even if we did we wouldn’t go. Ultimately the driver has the responsibility to avoid any road hazards whether vehicular or bovine but we have become accustomed to servicing such jobs. I can see why the cow is not a job for us but I can also see what out attendance may prevent. Do we sort the cow or deal with the accident later? Many in the service will say we have to go because of the risk to life using a “what if” scenario. There are also those in the job who say we should attend because if we have been told about something, do nothing and something awful happens then we will be hauled over the coals by command and the media. There is an increasing voice saying this is not a police matter.
A person has collapsed in the street. Someone is with them. They are breathing but not responding. No reason for the collapse is known. An ambulance job or the police? Well without any evidence to the contrary it appears to be a medical episode and one for ambulance. Yet we go? Why? We go because we always have and we use theories such as “We don’t know what happened. They may have been assaulted”. We also apply the protection of life principle. Despite those who believe we should attend there is an increasing voice saying this is not a police matter.
Police incident managers find themselves, everyday, making decisions about attendance or not. Should we go because we always have and divert precious resources (safe) or do we refuse and face the wrath if the situation goes wrong (risky)?
There are too many variables, in relation to the incidents we may not attend to list them all. However, the safe option means we maintain the service we provide but run the risk of resource depletion. This may create an inability to resource an emergency incidents as it presents. The risk option means we alienate partners, the public and sometimes ourselves. We also run the risk of criticism from within and also the media. Many times I have heard, and said myself, “Imagine this on the front page of the Daily Mail”.
The incidents we attend, or don’t, when things go wrong are investigated quite often by the IPCC. Their funding has increased considerably during the same period that police forces have faced huge cuts. Increased resources means more capacity to investigate cops. Whilst wrong doing and poor service needs to be investigated I am concerned that we could fall into a trap of reducing demand whilst being judged by those who expect us to deliver the service we always did. Those two will never meet and that could leave officers open to dismissal, court appearances and potentially…prison.
If we are seriously going to reduce demand and adandon the work we should not be doing then there needs to be a proper grownup conversation about it. What the public want and what we the police can realistically deliver. A realignment of what the police service is here to do. The Home Seceratary says we are crime fighters. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is a simplistic and dangerous view that fails to appreciate the role we are currently mandated to provide.
If our role is not formalised officially to meet 21st century policing needs then the changes we make in order to cope could leave officers and forces wide open.
The PFEW have been asking for years. Now is the time for the government to listen and do it. Let’s face it, if reforms are working then a Royal Commision into policing will endorse all their policies and reforms. What are they are afraid of?
The time for a Royal Commision on policing is now.