Published 1 January 2018
"Not the kind of shift we were expecting: 3 hospital guards, safeguarding an elderly lady, safeguarding a vulnerable child, a high risk missing 12 year old."
The words of a nurse? Social worker? In fact a tweet from a Devon and Cornwall police officer just a few weeks ago, illustrating the sheer breadth of calls on police time. 'Non-crime’ demand is in the spotlight as many ask whether the police is the right service to be dealing with some of these issues.
Police and Crime Commissioners stress the impact the change is having on their ability to plan and deliver what the public need and expect. However, despite the concern of policing leaders, there is not yet a coherent picture about how much time and resource ‘non-crime’ demand is taking up, which have allowed some questionable myths to emerge about how the police spend their time. Clearly it's not enough to just count calls to the police - a domestic abuse case will take infinitely more resource than a vehicle offence. So what is the best way to do it? Crest has been testing the narrative that policing is increasingly the victim of 'mission creep’ - picking up demand as a 24/7 public service of last resort. What we have found is something more complex.
Why is it so hard?
The task of understanding police crime and non-crime demand is challenging for three reasons:
1. Understanding demand means quantifying police activity. The evolving brief of police activity and the insufficient quality of police data make this difficult;
2. Understanding police demand means taking into account hidden, or latent demand, which is, by definition, difficult to measure;
3. Police demand means different things to different people depending on their perception of the mission of the police.
What is non-crime demand?
Our first task was to define what non-crime police demand actually was. Real life is complicated and the line between 'crime' and ‘non-crime’ demand is inevitably blurred. Nonetheless, working with police teams and policy specialists, we developed a list of the most common social issues triggering urgent police response, which did not necessarily relate to a specific crime. Issues included: mental health, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, homelessness and a large proportion of anti-social behaviour. Below we will look at some of them in detail.
Mental health related demand
Having been perceived as the 'cinderella service' for many decades, mental health is now recognised as an issue of national importance. An estimated 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems each year in the United Kingdom, so it is unsurprising that the police deal with people experiencing mental health crises in the most extreme situations. Furthermore, the Royal College of Psychiatrists have reported that as many as 9 out of 10 prisoners report some kind of mental health problem, which implies that those entering the criminal justice system (CJS) also disproportionately experience mental health issues.
Measuring mental health related demand is challenging. Police officers regularly report that they are dealing with individuals going through a mental health crisis instead of mental health professionals. Yet, there is currently no nationally consistent data on mental health related incidents the police have responded to.
Data does show that the total number of detentions under the Mental Health Act (1983) in England increased by 30 per cent between 2011/12 and 2015/16. Demand is going up as the number of self harm and attempted suicides have been increasing. We also know that the clinical provision for treating mental health crises has decreased, both in hospital and in the community. Adding grist to the mill, many also say that it can be simpler to access emergency treatment for mental health via the police. Crest's research has found some evidence to support this. When the police are called by the public in the event of mental health crises and attend, they act as a conduit for vulnerable people to then have access to treatment and care. Police respond to emergencies when other services do not. All of which has serious consequences: for the public who may need support from mental health professionals and do not get it; and for the police, who experience a drain on their resources that are already under significant pressure.
Consistently emotive, the issue of missing children (many of whom are looked after by local authorities) is increasingly making the headlines, thanks to the growing interest in the phenomenon of 'county lines'. Our research shows that the majority of this type of demand is driven by children who go missing regularly, for example up to twice a week every week. It appears that demand on the police has increased significantly since 2016, when a new policy was introduced highlighting that every missing child should be considered at risk of harm.
The guidance issued to police officers states that although responsibility is ultimately shared, the police are entitled to expect parents and carers, including staff acting in a parenting role in care homes, to accept normal parenting responsibilities and undertake reasonable actions to try and establish the whereabouts of the individual.
In the case of local authorities with parental responsibility over looked after children, evidence from police officers suggests that care homes often call 999 when the child is late, even if their whereabouts are known and it is suspected the child is not at reasonable risk of harm. Moreover, our data suggests a small number of 'repeat cases' drive a large volume of total demand. Often, the police are called in to deal with the symptom of a missing child. Meanwhile, no one is addressing the cause of repeated behaviour.
When resources are stretched on all sides, there is a strong argument for police resources to be focused on cases where children are at serious risk. Crest's research reveals that police forces are regularly called upon to pick up children who are hanging out with friends a few streets away. For looked after children, care homes report lack of (legally regulated) authority or lack of staff in order to carry out basic local searches themselves.
In the case of those who go missing regularly, there may be a strong case for police intervention, particularly when a pattern emerges in which it is suspected that children are coming into contact with peers or adults who groom them, either to be part of a ‘gang’, or as prey to child sexual exploitation. However, the sheer volume of demand facing the police means this kind of analysis may be under-explored, leaving children vulnerable.
It is a hard fact - police pick up emergency demand where others do not or cannot. Whilst the police will always need to respond to situations where mental health, addictions and other social issues are playing a part, Crest's work with police forces shows they are also picking up crisis demand where other, more appropriate, public services are not able to respond.
Here lies the crux of the debate: are the police doing what we, as a society, need and want it to do? If we decide that the police should be the emergency service of last resort, then the workforce and systems will have to adapt. If we think there is a better way to respond to (for example) mental health crises and missing looked after children, then all of the public services need to pull together in the same direction.
Crest’s research into non-crime demand and its impact on the police will be published in the coming weeks. With resources across the public sector, including the police, still under serious pressure, prioritisation and collaboration will be key to ensuring resources reach those at greatest risk of harm. To find our more about our research in this area visit the project page or get in touch.