In the last blog I talked generally about risk and how so much of police work is about the management of risk.
I discussed how easy it can be to achieve a target but miss the point – even in cases of high risk.
I touched upon how risk has been ignored for too long as focus has been on types of crime rather than a crime’s individual effect on a victim.
Part 1 of the blog concluded by saying that, as risk has been under the radar for so long, its true level has never really been assessed. Now it is being assessed it is becoming harder to manage because of sheer volume.
Finally, I said that the prospect of reducing thresholds, as is being considered for the ambulance service response times, is not an option and that I would seek to explain why.
The reason, quite simply, is accountability.
There are people out there who believe that the police in the UK are, in fact, unaccountable. The truth is that the police in the UK are probably held to account more than any other police service in the world.
We are held to account by the people we serve. We are held to account by Police and Crime Commissioners. We are held to account by the Courts. We are held to account by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, HMIC and Government. We are held to account by the media and – most importantly – we are held to account by the law.
I cannot think of another part of the public or private sector which is held to account so thoroughly and by so many sources.
The NHS comes close but what this lacks is an independent investigatory body, such as the IPCC.
The fact that no-one else is subject to scrutiny or accountability in quite the same way is the reason why the police cannot say “No” and why it will be impossible not to accept management of risk once we are made aware of it.
In previous blogs I have talked about how the police have become the default Plan B for many other agencies. It is particularly noticeable in terms of demand from the NHS and also from private care homes, homes for young people, residential hostels and the like.
Some real examples of how police become involved:
A person was detained by the police under the mental health act and taken to a place of safety for assessment. They were released several hours later – it being determined that they were not sectionable. A follow up appointment was duly booked for this individual at a local mental health clinic. When the person arrived for their appointment the staff – all clinically trained – were so concerned about the person’s mental health that they contacted the crisis team to query why they had been sent there and that they actually needed a full and immediate assessment. The crisis team refused to come out and suggested that the clinic call the police. The clinic is a private premises and police are powerless.
Another example involves a mental hospital where, one night, a person presented themselves to the security staff at reception and said they were suicidal and needed help. This person had found their own way to the hospital from some distance away because they thought the hospital could help them. The hospital called the police.
A patient awaiting mental health assessment at A&E became abusive and nasty towards the staff there before the assessment could start. He was escorted from the premises by security, watched to walk away and the hospital then reported him missing to the police.
These examples are from the last three weeks alone.
Looking back over a slightly longer period we have had calls from elderly persons residential homes asking us to go and restrain elderly residents with dementia.
I have lost count of the number of times we have been contacted by doctors or A&E or the crisis team asking us to go and knock on the door and “check the welfare” of someone they are medically concerned about.
We get calls all the time about young people who have been within the care of social services for years and who habitually leave their care homes and are reported missing.
We are frequently called by mental health hospitals who wish to report patients missing. Most commonly this involves patients who have been granted leave and have failed to return. Quite often the hospitals know exactly where they are and it is frequently the umpteenth time this has happened.
In these latter cases I have come to ask why the organisation is calling us. The most common answer is “it is our policy to call the police”
When I ask whether they are doing anything to actively locate the person themselves the answer is invariably “no”. Reasons include:
“we are not insured.”
“We are not allowed to leave.” “Someone has to stay here to answer the phone”
“We don’t have the staff”
“its not our job – its yours”
Of all of these cases the one which disturbs me most is police being asked to restrain elderly dementia sufferers in residential care. When questioned about why the police have been called I have heard
“We aren’t allowed to touch the patients”
“It’s our policy to call the police”
“They are uncontrollable”
Which makes you wonder why they are there in the first place but regardless of this it seems that in all these cases things reach a point slightly above “normal” and the organisation calling has absolutely no contingency to deal with it whatsoever.
So long as everyone behaves properly, is where they are supposed to be, acting normally then they can cope. Outside of that it’s their policy to call the police.
And we aren’t very good at saying “no.” Mostly because, now that we are aware of the issue we feel obliged to do something or we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t. The agency who called us has their escape route – they called us. We have no one else to turn to.
We come into conflict with agencies in other ways. Particularly when our assessment of risk differs.
The best example I know of is that of a patient at a mental hospital who habitually escaped. Not only did they often not return from the leave they kept being granted but they would – actually and properly – escape.
On four occasions on the bounce (in a matter of weeks) this person went to a known suicide spot. It got so predictable that we worked out how long it would take them and had an interception party of police officers waiting for them.
On the fifth occasion they didn’t show up.
After three occasions representations had been made to the hospital that they might like to reconsider the treatment plan and ask whether this person was in a secure enough environment. The answer was that they did not consider this person to be a real risk.
It was pointed out that the only thing stopping the person from coming to a tragic end – even by accident – was police catching them. But this didn’t sway opinion.
It was pointed out that we always treated this person as high risk but we were told that the hospital didn’t share that view.
It was pointed out that every time the person went missing we would utilise officers from three districts and a helicopter to find them – but no.
On this fifth occasion we had to rethink. I will not go into the tactics employed but it was resource heavy and not easy. I eventually worked on a theory – which turned out to be correct – and the person was located on a railway bridge some distance away.
The helicopter caught the footage of my officers wrestling this person back onto the safe side of the bridge just as the train went underneath.
This footage was then sent to me and taken to the hospital where it was shown to the staff and they were invited to consider whether it affected their assessment of risk at all.
Oddly enough – it did. But it took video evidence to achieve that.
Quite often we hear the reason for crisis teams or others not intervening is because they state that such behaviour is purely “attention seeking”.
It may very well be. That may allow them to do nothing. They may be able to justify that inactivity is the answer because anything else is pandering to the attention seeking behaviour and will make it worse.
Now imagine the police trying to use that very same argument.
It doesn’t matter to me whether the behaviour is attention seeking or brought on by florid psychosis or deep depression. When that person is on the harm side of a wet bridge in the middle of winter – I have a duty to do something about it.
Can you imagine what the IPCC would do to any officer who, upon being investigated for misconduct in public office following the death of someone in apparent need of help, said “I didn’t do anything because I thought their behaviour was attention seeking.”
And yet – many of these other agencies have staff who it could be argued hold public office.
No – it’s okay. We don’t think the risk is that high. It just attention seeking behaviour.
Then why call the police?
The reason is that they aren’t confident in that assessment at all and the police are the “just in case” call.
Responsibility transferred by dialling 101 or 999.
The question I always find myself asking is “how has it ended up here?”
How can it be that a vulnerable individual can be managed in such a way?
In the last two weeks alone we have dealt with three people who feel that they aren’t getting the help they need from the NHS or mental health services and have either threatened or attempted suicide. The irony is that each of those calls has COME to police via the NHS – reporting concerns for the welfare of the person because of a call they have just received from them.
We cannot live in a risk free world. It simply isn’t possible to see it all in advance or mitigate it all completely when we do. This should not stop us trying but we are heading to a point where, now we are beginning to properly examine it, we are finding a lot more of it. And yet – there is a prevailing belief – particularly in hindsight and by those who hold police to account – that “no amount of risk is acceptable.”
Where police have ignored risk then of course it is right and proper that they answer for this. But is this level of accountability being applied in the same way to all those who SHOULD be managing risk? Particularly long before the police should ever be involved?
If everything is high risk then it will be unmanageable. We cannot treat every “threat to kill” on Facebook as a serious incident. What should happen in these cases is that there should be reasonable checks made on the real threat posed by the person making them and the vulnerability of the potential victim. However, there will be times when we get this wrong.
The checks may suggest that neither party is known to us and our enquiries may lead us to believe that the threats are just words. If something tragic were then to happen you can guarantee that the fact that police didn’t act on the obvious “threat to kill” will be investigated by the IPCC.
Equally, we will over-react. The classic case being when a person walked into a shop, in London I believe, and said he was carrying a home made explosive device. Cue full scale armed police operation. Only to find afterwards that it was a cardboard box or something. Or the time that bus got pulled over in the Midlands (I think) because another passenger saw fumes or vapour coming from a bag and a person acting suspiciously. Whole scale closure of the motorway network and CBRN procedures only to discover it was an electronic cigarette.
Littlejohn had a field day with both of those. “You couldn’t make it up”. He criticised the police in London for looking like the Spetnaz and his solution to both was to simply send a bobby in and deal with it by asking them to hand it over.
If you’d known it was a cardboard box and an e-cig that’s exactly what you’d do – but we didn’t.
And that it the point. Risk assessment isn’t easy. It can be very difficult – especially when things are already at crisis point. The luxury of time, consensus (and hindsight) do not exist. Decisions have to be made on what you know and balanced against what you don’t know. “What it could be” and “what might happen” also feature heavily.
Where it all falls down is that the police are inheriting all of this and often at the point of crisis.
Much more needs to be done to share the risks across the public sector and ensure that more is done – earlier – to prevent things from reaching that crisis point wherever possible.
It is not acceptable risk management to simply allow things to escalate over time and then expect the police to resolve it when it goes “bang.”
It can’t always happen – but risk is best managed before it becomes crisis. The police should not be the safety net where risk could be more effectively identified and managed sooner.
My experiences suggest that this isn’t happening enough and there is a belief, quite widely held, that a call to the police with an “over to you” constitutes risk management.
It doesn’t even come close.