Over the years, most of the conversations I have had with people about the 101 call service have ended in mutual frustration.
I have tried to explain the growing demand on the service, members of the public have wanted to talk about how long they waited to get through. One former Rotherham councillor told me he could ‘solve the problem’ because it was just a matter of getting the IT right and he had a background in technology. I knew it couldn’t just be about the technology; or it would have been fixed.
But over recent weeks, when 101 has come up, the conversations have taken a different turn. There has been a greater willingness to step back and think about what is happening with a bit more understanding. The reason seems to be because of what has been happening of late with calls to other services, principally Ambulance and Fire and Rescue.
As long as people could ring for an ambulance or a fire tender and one turned up in a reasonable time, 101 could seem as if the police were just inefficient. Why can’t you be like the Ambulance Service or Fire and Rescue? But recently, we have seen both of these other services buckle and the public has realised that demand can rise to the point where the call centre and the available resources simply cannot cope. It has little or nothing to do with how efficient the technology or call handling service is – though you do need continuing investment in the IT.
A few weeks ago, when temperatures in South Yorkshire soared into the high thirties and there were outbreaks of fire in multiple places across the county, we saw something we had never seen before: many people were dialling for help at the same time, overwhelming the call handlers, and there were insufficient fire tenders to go to every place. Across the country, fields, trees and crops, and in some cases properties, were left to burn as incidents were triaged for seriousness and risk to life. If we hadn’t realised before, now we did: fire officers were a finite resource and could not be everywhere.
Similarly with the Ambulance service. The crisis in the NHS has created situations that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. Demand for ambulances has gone up and as a result emergency calls using 999 have not been answered as quickly as we expected; ambulances might not turn up for hours. In Cornwall, one 90 year old woman waited 40 hours in considerable distress. Ambulance crews who would normally deal with eight or nine patients on a typical shift were reduced to two or three because they were spending so much time queuing outside A&E departments.
The people I have been speaking to recently – in Sheffield and the Don Valley – have realised that 101 faces something similar. There are days and times of day when demand can be overwhelming and even if the number of call handlers were doubled or trebled or quadrupled to answer every single call at any time of day or night within a few minutes, there would not be enough police officers to deal with each incident reported. Again, there would have to be some triaging and some assessment about threat, harm and risk. Just as some fields might be left to burn or a patient might not be seen for 40 hours, while some incidents of ASB or crime might get a swift response, others might not be dealt with as quickly as any of us might want. That is as frustrating for the police as it is for the public.
We need a bigger, national conversation about the ever-rising demand on the police service (and ambulance) and then swift action about how we deal with it going forward. This is not happening at the moment because the government has descended into a kind of catalepsy as we wait for a new Prime Minister. But it has to happen after that and with an urgency that is currently lacking.
Restoring public trust
“Police officers who are violent towards women and girls can expect to be sacked.”
If you saw this sub-heading in a newspaper last week you may have found it surprising. Isn’t this exactly what we would think would happen? Yet the headline pointed to the fact that this had not always been the case. It was generated by a report from the College of Policing issuing up-dated guidance to chief constables about the appropriate penalties for breaching standards of conduct and behaviour. And one of the recommendations was that violence against women and girls should always have a ‘high degree of culpability’ – though behaviour would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Briefly, the College is responsible for setting the ethical standards of the police, for training and for ensuring there is some consistency of approach across the 43 police forces. Misconduct hearings may be chaired by a senior police officer or a lawyer and can result in officers being given a written warning or reduced in rank or dismissed without notice. But the College had become concerned about different standards in different forces and the way in which in some areas abusive officers had remained in their posts, something that eroded public trust and confidence in the police. There was also a suggestion in what the College said that where the chair was a lawyer, officers were dealt with more leniently.
In introducing the new guidance, the College’s Chief Executive, Andy Marsh, a former chief constable for Avon and Somerset, said:
I have spoken before about my frustration at having to re-admit officers to my workforce who I thought should have been shown the door.
He was particularly concerned that those making disciplinary decisions should take into account the way such behaviours affected people’s trust in the police more generally especially at a time when that had become damaged. He said:
In many cases, the guidance wasn’t clear enough that legally-qualified chairs should be considering the impact an incident may have on wider public confidence, as well as the specific incident itself.
Police and Crime Commissioners have welcomed the up-dated guidance recognising that officers abusing their position for their own sexual purposes or offering violence on or off duty seriously erode confidence in the police and must be dealt with ‘firmly yet fairly’.
The number of cases is high enough to be worrying. In the twelve months ending March 2021, 139 serving officers were dismissed and barred from service. 100 were dismissed after they resigned and 18 after they retired. Thirty eight had abused their position for sexual purposes, 17 for assault and 7 for domestic abuse.
As Chief Constable Andy Marsh went on to say:
If someone’s behaviour is so bad that it would damage the public’s trust in their police service, they should be sacked. There is no place for them in policing, and neither chief constables nor their colleagues want them.
I think this is right, provided we are sure that each case is assessed on the strength of the evidence, otherwise we create further injustice and erode the trust officers must have in being treated fairly by their own organisation.
Speaking of fairness, I met members of Tickhill Town Council last week and we had a good conversation about a number of issues they face there.
Tickhill is a very pleasant, small town which does not have high levels of either crime or anti-social behaviour (ASB) – though if you live in a road that has suffered a burglary or a spate of quad bikes that may not be how it feels! But it does raise for me the matter of fairness when it comes to allocating scarce police resources. There are hot spots of crime and ASB which could take up all police officer time and attention because of the heavy demand; but that would not be fair on places like Tickhill.
So what would be fair? Getting the balance right is not easy when resources are limited, which is why the councillors were right to raise the issue with me.
Unfortunately, this is not something Solomon applied his mind to and it doesn’t form part of the police training manual.