Police errors raise fresh concerns over call centre performance

Errors made in the handling of calls relating to missing persons, the reported sexual assault of a child and a firearms incident were among those recorded by police control rooms during a three-month period.

Common police call centre mistakes include calls not being given a high enough priority. Picture: Julie Bull
Common police call centre mistakes include calls not being given a high enough priority. Picture: Julie Bull

Details of 999 and non-emergency calls obtained by The Scotsman show Police Scotland catalogued more than 40 “notable incidents” between 
1 November and 25 January where areas for improvement were identified.

They include a call where a controller failed to take a suspect’s description or log a police incident following an alleged sex assault on a child.

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In another incident handlers failed to properly prioritise a call about a missing person later found dead in their home.

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

But the force also recorded dozens of notable incident reports which either identified individual errors or an “opportunity for organisational learning”.

Common mistakes include officers being sent to the wrong address and serious incidents not being given a high enough priority.

However, there were also incidents which highlighted good practice, including one where a call handler managed to get a suicidal man armed with a weapon to safety.

Details of the incidents were obtained using Freedom of Information legislation.

Of 47 notable incident reports, three were recognised as good practice; four as an opportunity for operational learning and the rest put down to individual human error.

Police Scotland withheld three reports, two of which are subject to ongoing inquiries by the Police Investigation and Review Commissioner (Pirc) and the third a Fatal Accident Inquiry.

In one incident, a call highlighting concern for a person’s safety was closed after officers checked the person’s home.

However, a further search the following day after the incident had been upgraded to a missing person inquiry led to the discovery of a body.

A review of the incident found significant information had not been properly logged, which would have “elevated” its seriousness.

Following a report of a sexual assault on a child, a call handler advised the caller to attend a police station, but did not create an incident in the system, establish a location for where the crime took place or take a description of the alleged attacker.

Another call to report a firearms incident led to the wrong address being recorded and the incident transferred to the wrong control room.

Other incidents included a call handler with a “lack of patience and questionable communication skills” telling a suicidal man to hang up the phone without taking his address, leading to a “significant delay” in tracing him safe and well.

Police Scotland’s control rooms have been under considerable scrutiny since the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill in 2015.

It took police officers three days to find the couple’s car after an initial call from a member of the public about the crash on the M9 was not properly logged.

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, who has repeatedly raised concerns about Police Scotland control rooms, said the latest figures were “concerning”.

He said: “It is important that Police Scotland encourage a culture of reporting notable incidents or near misses so they can learn for the future.

“However, it is concerning that there have been so many incidents as could have resulted in serious events that would risk our safety and security.”

Assistant Chief Constable John Hawkins said: “The number of notable incidents is small but they are very important to us because they present an opportunity to learn.

“When I look back over the past year, it’s been one of significant improvement.”