“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.”