When I was a boy, my parents bought me a Ladybird book entitled ‘The Policeman’. It contained descriptions of a variety of wholesome policing activity such as chasing bank robbers and patrolling in the community. I wonder what sort of content would be in there now if it was rewritten today?
Well, based on recent first hand experience I suspect that in addition to the sort of things that the public think we do, there would be a whole host of other activity as well, not all of it directly the responsibility of the police to deal with. Sometimes I look at the type of incidents that officers are expected to attend and my heart sinks. Police officers have become pseudo counsellors, social workers, referees, amateur civil law practitioners, quasi medical experts and unofficial minders for other agencies. The list goes on. When someone dials 999 in the middle of the night, if nothing is on fire and there’s no one injured then it must be a job for the police, right?
Wrong. Over the last few years our organisation has become adept at expanding the boundaries of what constitutes ‘police work’ into totally new realms, and in many cases this demonstrates a mature and progressive understanding that the role of the police is changing and it is not just all about catching bank robbers and dealing with pub fights. Thank God that we have moved on from the old mentality of “sorry love, we can’t get involved in that because it’s a domestic”. I argue however that we have gone too far. Our organisation has embraced almost everything as an add-on to our core role, and by servicing every whim of the angry 999 caller we have allowed public expectations of what the police can and should become involved in to explode beyond control.
Let me give you some recent examples:
- Caller reporting that someone walked past the shop she works in and laughed.
- Tit-for-tat name calling between school children on Facebook. (Gotta love social media).
- ‘My brother won’t let me have my turn on the X-Box’.
Unfortunately we seem to be prepared to respond to a lot of this stuff. When supervisors are bold enough to say ‘no’, they risk the inevitable complaint from the caller, who (bless ’em) genuinely believes that the police should deal with the incident.
Recently I have been saying ‘no’ a lot at work, and I’m quite happy to do it, although it does cause some colleagues to metaphorically gawp with amazement, apparently wondering whether I am insane or have just temporarily lost grip on the reality that dictates everything must be a job for the police. Our innately helpful disposition means that we are often willing to involve ourselves in incidents way beyond the scope of our expertise or jurisdiction. A couple of examples from my most recent night shift illustrate this point. Picture the scene:
1. Ambulance control tell us they are going out to a ‘violent patient who has taken an overdose’. Now in my experience, most ‘overdosees’ (is that a real word?) tend to be relatively docile, although I accept there are exceptions. These ‘violent patient’ calls are becoming more commonplace and no one ever seems to know where the initial information comes from, so on this occasion I asked the control room to call ambulance control back to establish how the patient was being violent. It turned out that there was nothing to substantiate any violence (or propensity for violence), so I directed that there was no requirement for police attendance. I asked the control room to inform our ambulance service colleagues that should they encounter hostility at the incident, they should not hesitate to call us and we would of course respond to assist them.
Fortunately, the ambulance crew found the man to be quite amenable and not at all aggressive, although he declined to go to hospital with them. So what did they do? Call the police. What did we do? Sent someone.
Now I am all for supporting our colleagues in other agencies, but what exactly could the police do in these circumstances? There was nothing to suggest the man was mentally incapable, he was sketchy about whether or not he had actually taken any tablets, and he was exercising his right not to go to hospital. The police have absolutely no power to force him to do otherwise and if the medical experts were unable to persuade him to go with them I’m not sure that the city’s finest would have been able to either. (Meanwhile it was a hot night in the city centre and jobs were coming in thick and fast).
I therefore called up on the radio and instructed the control room to cancel the unit that had been despatched, allowing them to be diverted to a crime incident in progress elsewhere. I endorsed the incident log with my rationale (i.e. we had no power to go into the man’s home and take him to hospital against his will), and the ambulance service, as most appropriate lead agency were left in charge of the job. (It later transpired that the man went to hospital with them and was absolutely fine).
Sound familiar? What about this one then?
2. Later during the same night, the local mental health team called to tell us that they had assessed a 70 year old man in a residential home and determined that he should be admitted to another facility under the Mental Health Act. As he was a particularly vocal OAP they wanted the police to transport him from one location to the other. Again, officers were promptly despatched even before I could say ‘R v D’Souza 1992’. This piece of case law highlights the dangers of police officers helpfully involving themselves in other people’s business, namely in unlawfully entering premises to restrain and transport someone who had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The officers were found to have acted unlawfully in doing so, and the conviction for assaulting them was overturned as it was deemed that they were not acting in the lawful execution of their duty.
I shouted up over the radio to cancel the officers, and asked that the caller be advised that they should take responsibility for transporting the man as per the Mental Health Act Code of Practice (after all they have suitably trained staff), or if they had been unable to complete the assessment due to the man’s uncooperative behaviour, they should obtain a warrant under Section 135 of the Mental Health Act that empowers police officers to lawfully assist them by entering the premises and if necessary use reasonable force to restrain and transport the patient.
This did the trick, but I was left with the distinct impression that our organisation has become so used to sending officers without question that my response was somehow unorthodox (although welcome). I have made other recent decisions as Duty Inspector that has resulted in officers being freed up to carry out their core function, but this too has invited a mix of sneaking admiration and cautious advice. By not sending out officers to collect a ‘missing’ youth from their friend’s house (how can they be missing if the care home knows where they are???!!), or refusing to conduct a ‘safe and well’ check on someone who phoned up their doctor to say they were looking at guns on the internet at 2am, I am often told that we need to ‘cover our back’, just in case something goes wrong.
Actually, I refuse to do anything on a ‘just in case basis’ and cringe every time I hear the phrase ‘cover your back’. My view is that if something needs doing then we should do it, but if it patently doesn’t need doing then as an organisation and individuals we have to be bold enough to say why it shouldn’t be done by the police, and then not do it. We are in the business of managing risk, not avoiding it, and this risk-averse mentality is exactly why the police take on too much work that is truly far beyond our remit. (The phrase “it’s not in my remit” infuriates me as well, but that’s another story).
We are in tough economic times and can no longer afford the luxury of the police service acting as a catch-all agency for every squabble or civil matter that your average 14-year-old caller on their mobile phone thinks should be arbitrated by a police officer. We are not an out-of-hours substitute for dog wardens, environmental health, or mediation services. We are the police, and we need to get back to doing what we are here to do – police work.
Sometimes this means we have to say ‘no’.