Not as easy as 1,2,3

They say that things happen in threes. Perhaps if you break something and then something else breakdown then you will expect the third to arrive very soon. Any good speech writer will tell you to use “threes” for sound bites (“Education. Education. Education.”) Any good photographer will tell you to try and break a landscape picture into thirds. Ready, Steady, Go! Red, Amber, Green. Stop, look, listen – yes, there are many things which come in threes.

There are threes in policing and the two which concern me most in my role are “High, Medium, Low” and “Immediate, Priority, Scheduled”.

High, medium and low are terms which feature across a range of issues including threat assessments for firearms incidents and risk assessments for missing people and “immediate, priority and scheduled” are the first three levels of assessing how quickly a police response is required to any given incident.There has to be some way of putting things into an order of priority – there is no escaping this otherwise you would never properly examine a situation and determine an appropriate response. Some things are greater than others – some things are more urgent than others and some things are more important than others.

It is absolutely right that things are reviewed, assessed and then a decision made on what needs to be dealt with first or who is at most risk.

I have come to wonder though, if these three categories are a little blunt.

The response grading is, I believe nationally, determined by computer after a call taker has input the answers to a series of questions. If a crime is reported and the offender is still on the scene then the software will usually follow an algorithm which says that this requires an “immediate” response. Yet – not every crime where the offender is still present requires an immediate response. “My 12 year old son has stolen money from me” might be an example of where there has been a crime and the offender is present but does not require an immediate response.

The call taker or dispatcher will usually have the ability to upgrade or downgrade the response to a call manually and override the computer’s decision once more facts are known.

The problem is less with the immediate category as it is with the second category of “priority.” If a call requires an immediate response it is likely to get one – officers will be moved from one place to another if necessary. However, a lot of things make it into the priority category. The kind of calls which make it into this particular basket cover a broad range – burglaries, thefts, missing people, domestic incidents, threats and harassment (NB – any of those can be classified as immediate if the circumstances require it.)

The issue comes if police don’t make it to the call in the time expected for a “priority” call. It has been classified from the outset as requiring a priority response and those circumstances are unlikely to change as time passes. In the meantime – more calls graded as “priority” will be coming in but that doesn’t change or alter the fact that the earlier “priority” calls are still unattended and remain a “priority.

If a call was graded as requiring a “priority” response on day one but is still on a command and control screen 24 hours later it isn’t less of a priority. The circumstances are as they were reported. It just means that other things have been assessed as being more of a priority and are now in the queue as well.

The thing is – that these judgements (which priority is the bigger priority) are made by the dispatchers and they currently only have experience to guide them. To be fair – they are very usually correct judgements but there is no sub-category within the label of “priority”. You can’t downgrade something simply because it happened 24 hours ago and police haven’t arrived yet – the risk (whatever it is) is likely to be the same as it was when it was reported (and in some cases higher because no one has attended to intervene.)It is the same with risk assessments for missing people. Three broad categories of High, Medium and Low. Even within that there is an upper end of High and a lower end of Medium but – in terms of classification it’s all we have and those subtle differences are all covered by a broad brush definition.

In some cases there exists a more sophisticated way of analysing a situation. In cases of “threats to life”, for example, there is a weighted question set and the answers give a score. The higher the score the higher the apparent risk. This can greatly aid the decisions around how great a risk exists and how quickly it must be dealt with. This can also help determine the level of resources allocated to dealing with it.

My point is this – if everything is graded as a priority then nothing is a priority. My suggestion is that, when it comes to considering how quickly police need to attend a call or determining the risk level of a missing person we apply a more sophisticated question sets and get a far better picture of the real threat, harm and risk.

For years, the police response to crime was based on types of crime. If it was a burglary, robbery, theft of or from motor vehicle then these tended to get a faster response than other calls PURELY because they were those types of crimes. This led to the ridiculous situation (noted by HMIC) where forces dictated that burglaries must be attended within the hour.

In and of itself this is an admirable aspiration but, when questions were asked of sergeants and inspectors as to why they didn’t get to a burglary in an hour it placed them under pressure to ensure this happened. As no such questioning occurred about threats, harassment or even domestic abuse cases it meant that a burglary would always take precedence over these calls (unless they required an immediate response) simply because it was a burglary.

Now ask yourself this – unpleasant though burglary is for any victim – which of those crime types presents the greatest potential risks to a a victim or potential victim?

The answer could be ANY of them depending on the circumstances but it is more likely to be harassment, threats or domestic abuse.

Does a burglary to the home of an elderly couple in winter warrant the same response as a burglary to a single person who has just returned from a summer holiday? Both are nasty offences but there was no assessment of the victim – just the crime type.

I think this flaw in logic has largely been recognised but we still lack subtly when it comes to looking at our response.

We have to move on from assessing crime by type and response by three labels. Each crime has a victim at the end of it and it is their reaction, their vulnerability and the risks to them which should actually dictate the speed and level of response.

What I would like to see is a new system where this threat, harm and risk is tested and scored at the point of contact. Not just for “threats to life” but for all calls to police in relation to crime and missing people.

This wouldn’t be onerous. It could be added in behind existing question sets used by call-takers. The response to certain questions triggering a number (taking factors such as crime type into consideration but also age, gender, nature of offence and key words and triggers into consideration.) At the end of a call this would all be added up and a score would be attached to the computer log.

Your dispatcher is then presented with a log which clearly explains where this call sits in relation to others on the screen. Rather than, as can exist now, 6 immediates, 34 priorities and a bunch of scheduled.

It is not a competition and each victim is important but there is no escaping the fact that some victims are at greater risk than others and can get lost in amongst those 34 “priority” calls which, on the face of it, all require the same “priority” response. In doing this at the very start police would have more properly assessed the vulnerability of and risk to a victim of potential victim. It would also add some consistency to proceedings but based on a deeper analysis.

We need to be much more subtle about this and three categories simply isn’t enough. Risk is missed this way and this could lead to tragedy. I am sure that there is sufficient evidence out there to demonstrate that this has already happened.

The police as a national entity are moving rapidly towards defining their role as dealing with threat, harm and risk. If we are really serious about this then we need to assess it, fully, in every case from the moment a call is received. As things stand we just have three categories of response.

It really is more complicated than that.

Some forces now have dedicated victim contact departments. These have been established to try and ensure that vulnerable victims are identified and receive enhanced contact and support and the feedback seems to be positive. Their vulnerability is assessed after an officer has attended and / or once the crime has been fully recorded.

I fully support this concept but believe that it comes too late in the process. I believe that the initial response to a call is as important because the vulnerability exists at that point. It is a good thing to identify a victim as needing enhanced support and to recognise that they are vulnerable but it could (in worst case situation) be a few days after initial contact with police that this depth of understanding is developed.

If this questioning was brought forward and formed part of the triage of the initial call then police could identify how quickly police need to respond – rather than how often they follow up.

With demand as it is, with calls currently being grouped into wide categories of attendance priority and with other calls leap-frogging existing calls – if you wait until a victim is actually seen before fully assessing the risk or threat they face – it could well be too late.

Update 01/08/16 – Although I wrote this blog some time ago this idea has yet to catch on. In the time since writing I have been watching how dispatchers risk assess things and one thing strikes me more than anything else – the amount of duplication and time wasted. If a call is labelled blandly as a priority the dispatcher at the console at that time has to determine where it fits in terms of how much precedence it takes over the other calls awaiting attendance. 

When that dispatcher goes on a refs break then the person taking over the seat has to assess all the calls themselves to make their own judgement. Which is likely to be the same.

When the dispatcher goes home and another takes over then the process has to be repeated again. And again. And again with every refs break and shift change. 

If a screen has thirty to fourty outstanding logs ok it and 3/4 are “priority” then this is a significant investment in time. Doing something which was done by the person before you and the one before them.

If a new call was assessed for threat harm and risk at the start and given a score then it would be easy to see which is the most important on the list. 

If new information was received then it would be a simple case of reassessing the score. 

Done once – this could save hours of time and double-effort. 

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2 responses to “Not as easy as 1,2,3”

  1. @PolicemansLot says :

    I agree largely with your identification of the problem, but I’m not entirely convinced by your solution. It runs the risk of being yet more drop down menus and scripted questions that slow down the dispatching of call to the PCS on the ground and divert attention away from other key questions. I’ve lost count of thr number of times I’ve recuved CAD telling me, say, the self defined ethnicity of the victim but not the direction of travel of the robbery suspect. I suspect a lot of the time what many victims want is a grading of “before I go to bed” or “before I finish work”.

    • nathanconstable says :

      I must say I am not a great fan of scripts but I do think there needs to be a better way of “scoring” a call than clumping it into three wide brackets. I almost see “priority” as the “everything not an emergency” basket and the whole one hour attendance target which accompanies it is nonsense. If you have 20 outstanding priority calls and, say, six available staff then you are simply not going to get there in an hour. Some calls will always need immediate attendance but most don’t. Having said that there are many calls which don’t require immediate response which do require us to get there promptly. But this category is now so large as to be difficult to manage. It is how we prioritise these calls where I think we need to think differently. Take “danger” for example. Is the caller in immediate danger? Yes – we go immediately. But you can still be in potential danger – calls like stalking, harassment, threats. Is a burglary victim in danger? Probably not – unless they have disturbed the offender. Going back to threats, harassment, stalking – there is a world of difference between “I was called names on Facebook” to an ex-partner following someone. It is these types of calls we need to think more carefully about. Even domestic incidents can be problematic. The definition of “domestic incident” is so wide and now generally attracts an automatic priority grading (or requires an Inspector to authorise any deviation from attendance / arrest) but an assault by partner / ex-partner is classified as a domestic incident and so is “my mother has stolen two of my puppies” as is assault by mother-in-law. One is clearly a greater risk than the other two but all are graded the same because they are domestic incidents by definition. A big dose of common sense is required, the application of the definitions needs to be less restrictive and all encompassing and the NATURE of an incident needs to be properly assessed to determine an appropriate response rather than grouping things automatically by crime type. In my humble opinion.

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