For many of us, our idea of policing revolves almost solely around enforcement. Perhaps we’ll consider investigation (especially now the new series of Line of Duty has started) but the perception that the police’s main job is to arrest and detain is mostly unexamined. The reality, like everything in justice and beyond, is more complex, writes Karyn McCluskey.
Good policing can involve conflict resolution, crowd control, problem-solving, observation, empathy and compassion. Rather than recording a crime, call-outs might actually involve listening to someone’s problems, taking them to a place of safety or making sure they get the help they need. Across the UK, we know the police are seeing a rise in demand – but from vulnerable people, rather than because a crime has been committed. Last August, the Mental Welfare Commission praised the work of Police Scotland in responding to people in distress but highlighted that often large amounts of police time were involved.
It is not so surprising that the police are often the first responders when someone is in crisis, but it must be incredibly frustrating when officers find themselves seeing the same faces over and over, still in pain, still in crisis – and knowing that next weekend they will be expected to again put a sticking plaster over that person’s problems, rather than give the long-term, effective help they need.
So what’s the solution? As ever, there isn’t just one. The police spending time responding to acutely distressed people doesn’t happen in isolation – it is connected with homelessness, addiction, deprivation and trauma. Like almost everything in justice, it’s not really about justice at all; it’s housing, health, employment, training and support. Yet again, what is needed is for us all to raise our heads from the job in front of us and look at the big picture – how can we work together? How can we make this better and not worse for the people we serve?
There are innovative trials happening all over Scotland, focused on doing just that. Last September, the Mental Health Street Triage service was launched as a pilot in Govan. It brings police, ambulance and mental health services together in the attempt to bring fast, efficient care to the person in need, without resort to arrest or detention in a cell. Each agency plays its part; where there is an immediate threat to life or a person in crisis, specially trained police are accompanied by a paramedic and the NHS provide information, support and assessment to the officers at the scene – and if needed, face-to-face consultation with the distressed person.
It seems simple – bringing the necessary services together to deliver a better outcome – but, as lots of us will have experience of, it never is. Anxieties over resources, budgets, responsibilities and liabilities often stymie projects before they’ve even made it onto paper.
To get something innovative off the ground often requires exemplary effort; the acceptance that hard work isn’t always rewarded; as well as great leadership to chivvy it all along. In the current climate of cuts and uncertainty, it can feel like there is little incentive to go the extra mile. When everyone is squeezed, who is going to put their hand up and ask for more work? But what does more work mean? Ask the police officer, spending another Saturday night in A&E with the same distressed, vulnerable person he spent last weekend with. There is no space in our public services for jobsworths – recognise your own and others’ skills and reach out. You can only make things better.
Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland