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COVID 19: Building capacity and retaining corporate memory

Delivery of policing and other criminal justice services is being re-calibrated but forces and their partners have proved both resilient and adaptable

When Assistant Commissioner Mark Simmons put his papers in a few weeks ago he was probably looking forward to either a quiet retirement or a new challenge in another area perhaps in the private sector.

He couldn’t have guessed that before that could happen his boss would put him in charge of London Policing’s response to the most significant crisis the country has faced since the Second World War.

The Commissioner described AC Simmons as one of the country’s most experienced police officers. Experience may seem a rather mundane, even un-heroic concept right now but it is an essential part of any organisation’s corporate memory.

In his case that knowledge base is around managing rising demand with reduced resources and building in capacity from outside when needed.

When the Met was forced to cut 1,600 officers due to government austerity measures, it rearranged its 32-borough structure into 12 large command units.

That took out some of the management costs while protecting safeguarding activity and emergency response on a larger scale.

The need for an agile workforce

It was a big change and some things didn’t work and needed to be quickly reversed such as doing away with the chief inspector roles in borough policing.

But the lessons of how to function under pressure and build in extra capacity in some areas will be just as vital in the current crisis. And make no mistake, having to cut 20 per cent of your costs in a service as vital and people-dominated as policing, was a crisis that had to be tackled locally and nationally.  

The service prides itself on its resilience and ability to work with and lead other agencies. It is also able to improvise, think on its feet and officers have proved to be highly adaptable first responders.

At Grenfell, officers formed a cordon and used their riot shields to protect the fire fighters going into the burning building as debris fell all around them from the stricken tower block.

That night officers also kept public order in a low key way reassuring the extremely agitated and distressed crowd of residents and others while keeping vital communications going between intelligence on the ground and those trying to trace friends and family in the tower.

Fighting fires and other crises

One of the officers praised by the judge in the public inquiry was Detective Superintendent Paul Warnett, who had been one of the first officers at the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell  - another example of the value of corporate memory.

But this is a national crisis and while London is the focus of the majority of known cases, every part of the UK is affected. So a national response is required but it will also have to be nuanced.  

The Met was close to being overwhelmed by the London riots in 2011 and officers became increasingly frustrated at their inability to deal with looting and other lawlessness. The Mutual Aid system kicked in but probably a bit late.

Several forces received CCTV review support after the 2011 riots  

But an important part of the recovery and clean-up operation involved making sure that those who had committed serious offences during the riots were identified, arrested and prosecuted. That major task involved support from the commercial sector given the scale of offending.

A leading supplier provided CCTV review support services at scale for several major forces after the riots and continues to provide surge capacity support to this day.

The policing equation for the current crisis is different. The court system is grinding to a halt and all public events have been cancelled. The night time economy has virtually evaporated. Those are just two examples of how the landscape has changed.

So there will be a big rethink in how front line resources may be allocated given this fundamental shift in demand. And as more resources are shifted to the front line established partner agencies and stakeholders will need to step in once more.

Over the last 20 years law enforcement has engaged more than ever with the commercial sector to provide additional capacity in training, back office functions and in providing investigation support functions.

Most readers of Police Oracle will know that it is owned by Red Snapper Group which provides such services.

The company’s managing director, Martin Jerrold says:  “RSG provides a unique service.  We maintain a substantial base of law enforcement talent available for flexible work and maintain their skills by providing CPD support within their flexible working assignments.  We believe we can play a supporting part in assisting UK policing ensuring it has the correct capacity levels.’

Balancing demand

Devon and Cornwall DCC Paul Netherton, NPCC lead for civil contingencies this week gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on the service’s response preparations to COVID-19. He was joined by ACC Owen Weatherill, Stategic Lead of the National Police Co-ordination Centre

It is clear that the ability to upscale and downscale to meet or retreat from separate areas of policing demand quickly and accurately are an essential part of those preparations.

“As levels of absenteeism start to rise and we can see signs that is coming, things will have to change and we will adjust our service accordingly,” DCC Netherton said. “A good example of that is not needing schools liaison officers because schools will not be running. So we will put those officers back onto the front line where they are needed.

“As things become more and more challenging we will withdraw from certain activities, prioritise and take a gradual, withdrawal from service approach.

He stresses that these decisions remain the domain of each chief constable independently. However, there will be advice from the centre  - along the lines of it is time to start withdrawing from neighbourhood patrols and concentrating purely on response calls.

There has also got to be a recognition that each force will see different levels of demand depending on the spread of the disease so will see its priorities differently. “They may not be seeing the same challenges as the force next door are,” says ACC Weatherill.

While some priorities will look different on the national policing map there are core services where a common expectation will not change.  This will cover emergency response and threats to life.

“But the reality is we will be able to deliver a lot more than that,” he says, “which can be achieved using in force resources and mutual aid which will level things out.”

Working with other agencies and taking the lead in each instance could be the biggest challenge warned DCC Netherton.

“Whereas in the past policing would tend to lean in and help lots of other agencies and you could do that around a particular issue or particular location, the scale if this and the fact that it affects every agency is probably the biggest challenge. Because some of the conventional support structures that other agencies might look to us for we may not be best placed to provide.

“The role of the police in any disaster is not so much around law and order but command and control, intelligence flow and co-ordinating the activities of others. We are doing that now. We have set up strategic co-ordinating centres and groups in every force. We have strategic and tactical groups running 24/7.”

It’s obvious to everybody that at certain points the NHS is going to be very stretched.

Outside the normal policing response there is a process for working with the private and voluntary sector to help forces provide that kind of support.

Downshifting non response functions

This would basically involve downshifting some of the lower level policing functions and admin-heavy tasks, including training, to the private and voluntary sectors and upshifting some of the higher functions   - such as firearms, protection and air support  - to the military.

Will forces be able to keep up a response capacity? “Yes, frankly” says DCC Netherton. “We have shown we can do it in the past going back as far as the London riots. The whole country can mobilise and support each other to deliver that mutual aid capability. It does mean that services are reduced in certain areas and chief constables will have to make decisions about which services to withdraw but all the modeling is telling us we can maintain that capability. “

The issue may become clouded by having to deal with another major incident such as a terrorist attack or some other mass casualty/public harm event. Hopefully that will not happen.  

But joint working is well established across a range of fields and specialisms. The policing contingency teams work with the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and police staff and civil servants are embedded in each others’ teams .

There are police advisors in each Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) and most forums are being chaired by Public Health England  or NHS England.

The modeling is quite challenging because the reasonable ‘worst case’ scenario often looks quite scary. But as the crisis develops and more accurate data starts coming in around definite cases and hospital admissions, that scenario can be calibrated in more detail.

Training and communicating new knowledge

Neighbourhood policing is a good provider of intelligence about vulnerability within communities. If that has to be pulled back to shore up response teams the knowledge of those officers doesn’t disappear  - it can still be accessed by the force and given to the other agencies or bodies who are taking up the slack .

DCC Netherton says 20 per cent of his staff can work from home and have lap tops with access to secure networks and another 20 per cent can work from a variety of different stations and other police buildings using the network and can operate effectively.

“That does two things – it keeps those local stations functioning and working but also provides a back up if extra services are required.”

With such a rapidly moving crisis the issues around training and advice related to new powers and procedures for forces and partner agencies is a significant challenge.

“Things are changing on a daily basis and one of the most difficult things I have is to get this information around to forces as quickly as I can. That’s ongoing,” he said.

The service is reacting very quickly to the challenges it faces and with the help of a whole range of partners will build the capacity it requires. It is a bit of a cliché to say we are in this for the long haul but long term planning for immediate response and complete service recovery are exactly what is required.  

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