“Just Say No?”

One of the main things I have noticed over the past 5 years or so is the increasing reliance on the police to perform functions for which they were never intended. Often, these functions are usually within the remit of other organisations who now simply have either no will or no resources to perform them.

Usually there is a phonecall from another organisation during which a crisis or situation is described and there is an attempt to seemingly transfer the risk and responsibility to the police.

I have blogged about this before but some classic examples would be an urgent welfare check on a child at 4:30pm on a Friday; or a person who has failed to return to a mental hospital after being allowed leave; a patient who is difficult to control and who requires restraint or a teenager who has left a care home after an argument with carers.

In a lot of these cases the event is not entirely unpredictable. It may be the umpteenth time that the patient has failed to return from leave – and yet they have still been permitted to have it.

It may be the umpteenth time that a child has absconded from the same home in the same circumstances (often in the same week.) It may be the umpteenth time that the patient has left A&E before being treated or become violent and aggressive on a ward.

But it is often the case that very little seems to be being done to manage and mitigate the problem between events. Rather, it seems, that the usual course of action is to allow things to reach crisis point and then call the police.

Invariably, police accept that risk and try to do something about it. It has reached a point where this primarily seems to be the bulk of police work.

Police work has become less about “fighting crime” and far more about perpetual risk management.

Constantly dealing with and prioritising those incidents which are likely to cause the most threat, risk or harm. This can and does involve dealing with and preventing crime but it goes way beyond it.

It is now increasingly about managing vulnerable people often at the point of crisis. It is increasingly about dealing with situations – particularly medical ones – which are far beyond the training and expertise of police officers. It is increasingly about dealing with the suicidal and those who self harm.

You can give an officer a day or two’s training on the basics of these topics but finding the time for that training is not easy. It simply cannot replace the expertise of professionals who understand the subject and have the processes and tools to deal with them.

And yet – currently – it is replacing that expertise and there seems little sign of that stopping.

That expertise is not available often enough or in sufficient quantity to deal with current demand and so the police have become expected to step in.

Many organisations make it a matter of policy to call the police when things reach a certain point. Often the police are not partners in or signatories to (or, in many cases, even aware of) these policies.

The debate has started about whether the police should simply start saying “no” to these requests. When a patient discharges themselves from A&E without signing the right paperwork and with a cannula still in their arm it is usual practice to call the police and report it as a high risk missing person. Is it high risk? I don’t know – if a doctor tells me it is would I be foolish to disbelieve them?

Many of the question sets used by police call handling centres positively encourage the identification of risk. Whilst this should prevent missing something important and provide a full picture the reverse side of the coin is that the answers frequently tick so many boxes that almost everything becomes high risk.

This then becomes as much about managing fear as it is about managing risk.

Fear of the consequences if something tragic happens. A lot of police response then becomes a matter of “just in case.”

The upshot of this is that situations are frequently over assessed as high risk because people are genuinely frightened that they might get it wrong inadvertently.

And who can blame them? The consequences when it does go wrong are severe. Protracted IPCC investigation and possible disciplinary or even criminal proceedings.

Of course the police should be accountable, especially where there has been neglect, but too often it seems that the officers dealing with a situation at or beyond the point of crisis are the only ones who come under intense scrutiny. The same level of investigation and consequence never seems to go back further into the history of an incident to ask “how did the police end up with responsibility for this in the first place?”

There is a very strong argument for a strategic level decision for the police to start saying “no” to many of the requests they get. But it would need to be a strategic level decision – perhaps even a government level decision.

Anything lower than this leads to individual culpability for the person answering the phone and making a decision on whether it is a police matter or not.

I don’t presume to know whether the National Police Chiefs Council are discussing this big issue. I would be surprised if they aren’t and I strongly suspect that there is much going on that I know nothing of.

However, for what it is worth, I urge the NPCC to define a national and consistent policy which all other agencies are made aware of and all forces operate.

The police cannot keep absorbing risks in the volume they are currently facing.

The police cannot keep absorbing risks which should really be better managed by others – earlier.

But – as things stand and without firm direction and backing from the very top – the police cannot currently say “no.”


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9 responses to ““Just Say No?””

  1. Christopher Hearn says :

    Even though I’m retired I still enjoy your articles however it’s frustrating to know that after so many years nothing has changed.

  2. Huw Griffiths says :

    As I’ve said in some tweets today, you can say “no” in fact you must say “no”. Police officers are not trained in either physical or mental health assessments or triage, yet most Police forces in the country send their officers to do just this. We do not have the training to carry out this function and there is absolutely no part of the law that requires us to do it. Yet you do.
    There is very clear legal advice on the subject as well as case law. It is not our responsibility to step into the shoes of others and attempt to do their highly skilled role. We do so out of misunderstandings of the law around risk, and that old urban legend that we are the agency that cannot say no.
    My force have stopped doing this. We just said no. We trained our call handlers how to politely, professionally but assertively say no. And it worked. Very quickly. The calls stopped. We just don’t receive them any more.
    In one month alone, this led to 750 fewer deployments to front line officers.
    There is crystal clear legal advice telling us to stop doing this.
    Please, Follow it.

    • nathanconstable says :

      More forces should take this stance – I entirely agree with you. Problem comes when, as appears to be the case in Kent (no further comment on that) the IPCC look into the response or non-response after such calls.

  3. retiredandangry says :

    Police Forces are more and more taking on risks and responsibilities that they are neither trained or resourced for, simply because they care and don’t want to say No. They would rather take on the mantle of Last Resort than turn down the request. This simply has to stop, resources no longer allow that luxury and eventually something will go horribly wrong and it will be the Police’s fault. Time for NPCC to sort this out once and for all.

    • Huw griffiths says :

      We’ve had a number of fatalities and near misses and I’ve met with the IPCC. As long as our staff can rationalise their decision making and explain why they’ve rejected a request for us to carry out a welfare check for which we are neither trained nor equipped for., the IPCC have been absolutely fine so far. It’s ok about ensuring we can justify what we do, and what we don’t do.

      • nathanconstable says :

        But wouldn’t it be so much easier if the weight of each individual force was behind the staff. Not all forces have taken this approach. They should do so. It shouldn’t have to be for the front line operator to stand alone.

  4. Peter Kilburn says :

    I retired 17 years ago and in my last few years I certainly spent far more time on non-criminal matters than at the beginning of my service. I am sure the situation has worsened since then and particularly in the last few years with significant cuts to all public services. However, this is not unique to the police service as health and education staff are being expected to deal with more and more matters that are beyond their “job description”.
    On a recent radio 2 programme Jeremy Vine posed the question “if crime rates fall when police numbers are cut should we scrap the police as we would then have no crime?” It was a simplistic shorthand question designed to get callers involved but it illustrates how little even the media understand of the wide range of tasks the police are expected to undertake

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