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Beware back police office cuts. They can have unforeseen and tragic consequences

There is always a price to pay for cost-cutting....

Read what I have to say on this in my latest column, out in today's Scotsman (31 October 2023)

It’s that time of year again , when public service managers sharpen their knives and get down to the seemingly endless task of making cuts to their budgets for the coming year. There’s no escaping this pitiless task, the books must be balanced, but after years of trimming, all fat is long gone. And for our emergency services it’s particularly difficult, in organisations mainly comprising people, reducing staff is the only choice.

Over the years the determination has always been to protect the front line whenever possible, and let the back office - support functions take the cuts. It’s the obvious solution, after all it’s the front line that delivers the service. Support functions are nice to have but, when the chips are down, nonessential. And so over the last decade many back office or support functions have been hollowed out – Training , Human Resources, and Control Rooms have all taken a hit. But cutting non-operational posts comes at a cost and in services like the police the results can have the direst of consequences.

Let’s look at the tragic deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill, who lay undiscovered in their crashed car near Stirling in 2015. An early call to a police control centre was mishandled leaving the crash site undiscovered for three days. By all accounts a tragic human error was responsible. An experienced police sergeant was brought from the street into the control room as emergency cover, without adequate training and using an IT system that was far from simple. Trying to cope with a heavy workload, he made the simple mistake of noting the details of the crashed car on a piece of paper, intending to update the computer when he had a minute. It slipped his mind, and this all too human error led to disaster.That is the simple explanation, but it begs a question. Why did this able street cop have to be shoehorned into a job he was unsuited for at the last minute?

A look back at previous decisions may point to a familiar story of unintended consequences. The sergeant was brought in as emergency cover because the control centre was inundated with calls and unable to cope. It is highly probable that this was the case because the call centre in question was also doing the job of another centre closed as part of cost cutting restructuring. As a result the remaining call centres were not only taking many more calls than they could cope with, but were covering geographical areas they were not familiar with. The decision to rationalise its eight old control centres made sense for the new Police Scotland but the speed and extent to which it was done was all about cost cutting, and it contributed to disaster.

Another example lies south in London’s Metropolitan Police, recently rocked by the scandal of having the murderer Wayne Couzens and the rapist David Carrick in their ranks. Their dreadful crimes raise some fundamental questions. How could such men have got into the police in the first place, let alone be allowed to carry out their dreadful crimes while serving as officers. The answer must lie in the failure of the entry vetting system and of front line supervision.

It can be no coincidence that both these individuals were specialised firearms officers, a scarce commodity in a Force struggling to find enough armed officers to cover their vast responsibilities. Perhaps due diligence was diluted due to back office cuts, or the poor training of supervisors. Whatever the reason the system to ensure standards failed. I do not envy the current generation of leaders as they are once again forced to make cuts, I have been in their shoes. But I hope they remember that there is always a price to pay for continued cutting of back office services. And sometimes that price is tragedy.

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