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Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
Let’s say that you turned up to your local A&E on Saturday night to tell them you’ve been burgled. What do you think the response might be?
You may well say “about as useful as calling the police”. But the reality is that every day your local force is called out to cases – from mental health to parking – that should have been picked up by local NHS, adult social care, and councils.
Parents worried about a child experiencing mental ill-health who can’t get hold of local crisis services turn to the police. When a vulnerable patient walks out of a hospital, staff will often call the police (who very often have found them around the back, having a cigarette).
Agencies that may have had a client miss an appointment earlier in the week, who have not been able to follow up in person before they close for the weekend, will call the police at 4 pm on a Friday asking them to conduct a ‘welfare check’. Despite parking offences being largely decriminalised under the 1991 Road Traffic Act and powers handed to local authorities, it is not unusual for police to get called about double-yellow parking.
I could go on, but you get the idea. To be clear, I don’t blame anyone who calls 999 or 101 with any of these problems. When you are faced with a problem that requires an arm of the state to step in, it is quite understandable that you’ll call whoever will actually respond.
The problem is that too often the police are the only ones who will. This is not new and there is an argument to be made that police have built a rod for their own backs here. Many of you will have used 101 to report a non-urgent crime. It has done an excellent job of ensuring, as far as possible, that 999 is reserved for emergencies.
What you may not remember is that when 101 was launched in 2006, it was done so as a joint police and local authority line. But then other agencies backed away and, as is so often the case, the police were left as the only agency holding the phone.
There are two main issues with this. The first is that the patient, the parent, the individual who missed an appointment, and the person experiencing unreasonable behaviour from a neighbour aren’t receiving the right help from the right agency. No-one likes being passed around until they find the help they need. But this is exactly what happens when the police are the only ones picking up the phone.
The second is one we are all familiar with: the inability of policing to deal with the crimes that we (rightly) expect them to solve. Burglary, theft, and criminal anti-social behaviour just aren’t being investigated and solved as much as any of us want them to be.
Recent estimates have suggested that by police only dealing with those mental health cases where a genuine police presence is required (including where someone is a danger to themselves or others) they could be freed to spend 400,000 hours solving burglaries, 500,000 hours dealing with domestic abuse, or 1.3 million hours on anti-social behaviour.
Speak to any officer at the end of a long shift and they will tell you about the mental health call-outs, the welfare checks, and missing person cases. They will also tell you about domestic abuse, stolen vehicles, and road accidents. It is clear which set of issues they believe they should be dealing with. No officer I’ve spoken to dreams of being a social worker instead.
The good news is that change is coming. Quietly and successfully Humberside Police, with the help of Jonathan Evison, their excellent Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner, have brought in the ‘Right Care, Right Person’ (RCRP) model which is already delivering for residents in terms of ensuring they receive support from the right agency.
It also frees up the police to prevent and investigate crime – to the tune of 11,000 officer hours per month. For the public in Humberside, this is a win-win. Centrally, work is now well underway to see the national roll-out of RCRP, and 37 of the 43 forces in England and Wales have already signed up (with Mark Rowley at the Met keen to be an early-adopter).
I’d like to be absolutely clear that this is not about saving money – as a PCC, this isn’t going to result in a single penny saved for my force. I won’t be able to put more officers on the street or purchase more drug-testing kits.
But it will mean that rather than two officers spending an entire shift sitting in A&E with someone who needs medical help for a mental health crisis, they will be responding to genuine 999 or 101 calls. To me, that is worth more than extra money for more officers.