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Police Scotland is being stretched thin by problems in NHS and social services

With many demands on officers’ time, it’s time to think about how much we are asking the police to do

This is the subject matter of my latest Scotsman column published today (5 March 2024).

It’s an alarming statistic. Last year, our police, employed to tackle crime, dealt with well over 100,000 mental health incidents, specialist work they’re not trained for. And our health services, which should be dealing with mental health demands, are tied down caring for hospital bed blockers who should be looked after by social services.

Something’s badly dislocated, so little wonder Chief Constable Jo Farrell is calling for a reset of parameters. She calculates the police commitment to dealing with non-police, mental health issues is the equivalent of 500-600 officers, the size of a small force – and dealing with mental health issues is only one of many distractions from their core duties.

Years ago when I became a Lothian & Borders Police divisional commander, I was delighted to have over 300 staff. Such a number could surely make a big impact on crime but I was puzzled why there were so few officers on the streets. The duty rosters soon revealed the unwelcome truth. On paper there were indeed over 300 people, but ‘extractions’ reduced that dramatically.

A constant struggle

For a start, you had to divide the operational strength by four to provide 24-hour coverage of eight-hour shifts with rest days. There were the dozens called to court each week, most of whom were never required to give evidence. Short and long-term sickness took another slice, while special duties like major investigation teams removed some of the more experienced officers. Every weekend we had to send dozens to work at sporting events, while marches and demonstrations regularly took away dozens of community officers. The freedom to march and demonstrate is not cost-free.

Appreciating the numerous extractions from our core duties was a reality check for me. We set minimum staffing levels and tried our best to keep to them, but it was a constant struggle. I often wondered what we could have achieved in our real business of preventing and detecting crime, if only we had been able to keep our men and women on the street.

Things have only got worse since then and Chief Constable Jo Farrell’s problems are on a vastly different scale to mine, yet the problem remains essentially the same. Often, when police officers are drawn off, there’s no alternative.

Officers face big judgment-calls

Police witnesses are required by law to attend court as witnesses, waste of time or not. Supervising marches and demonstrations is part of police responsibility for public order. As we enter a new age of violent demonstration, this will only get worse. With wars raging and the potential for changes to the political order, don’t expect peace and quiet on our streets anytime soon.

There remains a fundamental question: how will Police Scotland decide what calls not to attend? No control-room operator or computer algorithm can replace common sense and an experienced eye. If officers attend an incident where someone is mentally disturbed, how can they leave when no mental health professional is available? Who will judge whether a minor disturbance will escalate to an act of self-harm or one which threatens others?

Jo Farrell is right to address these long-standing anomalies, but she must know that in order for the police to step back, others must be equipped and trained to step forward. That’s the hard bit.

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