Chris Marshall: Police failure to respond to call sets another alarm bell ringing

The Andrew Bow case, with calls to the police not acted upon, has parallels with that of John Yuill and Lamara Bell, who died after their car left the road on the M9 near Stirling. Picture: Michael Gillen
The Andrew Bow case, with calls to the police not acted upon, has parallels with that of John Yuill and Lamara Bell, who died after their car left the road on the M9 near Stirling. Picture: Michael Gillen
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Another year, another controversy involving Police Scotland’s control rooms. Last week the force apologised for failings in the way it responded to concerns about a vulnerable man who was later found dead in his home.

Last week the force apologised for failings in the way it responded to concerns about a vulnerable man who was later found dead in his home.

The body of 36-year-old Andrew Bow, who had Asperger’s Syndrome, was discovered in Edinburgh on 23 March last year.

The Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc) found officers were not sent to his home on four occasions when concerns were raised. When officers were finally sent, they forced entry to find Mr Bow’s body.

Despite receiving three calls between 21 and 22 March 2016 from members of the public, control room staff failed to send officers.

While the calls were graded as Grade 3 and merited a response requiring officers to be sent within 40 minutes, reports of “concerns for a person” merit a higher priority response, requiring officers to be sent within 15 minutes of the report.

But the Pirc heard from officers and civilian staff working in the control room that it was not uncommon for Grade 3 calls to remain “un-actioned” for days.

It’s impossible to know if any earlier police intervention would have saved Mr Bow’s life – a post-mortem examination was unable to ascertain either a cause or time of his death.

But the police’s failure to act on concerns for a man whose flat lay just a short walk from St Leonard’s police station is a stark reminder of how badly wrong things can go.

The case has parallels with that of John Yuill and Lamara Bell, who died after their car left the road on the M9 near Stirling and after a call from a member of the public was not properly logged by police.

Both cases involve the Bilston Glen control room in Midlothian, which is now one of a small number of centres serving the entire country.

Improvements have undoubtedly been made in police call handling since the deaths of Mr Yuill and Ms Bell in 2015.

A report published by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) earlier this year, found 97 per cent of 999 calls were being answered within 10 seconds, while calls to the non-emergency 101 number were being answered within 40 seconds.

But it only takes errors made in the handling of one call for there to be serious consequences.

Figures obtained by The Scotsman earlier this year showed mistakes had been made in the handling of calls relating to missing persons, the reported sexual assault of a child and a firearms incident during a three-month period.

Police Scotland catalogued more than 40 “notable incidents” between 1 November and 25 January where areas for improvement were identified.

Mistakes are thankfully rare. Police Scotland dealt with nearly 500,000 emergency and non-emergency calls during the period, 99.9 per cent of which were handled properly.

And where systems rely on small numbers of people working in a pressured environment, there will always be mistakes.

But the worrying aspect of the case involving Mr Bow is the number of times an opportunity was missed to check on his welfare.

This speaks of not just control rooms under pressure, but an entire police service being asked to do too much with the limited resources it has.