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Officer safety review: cue for change or just another doorstop?

The National Police Chiefs' Council and the College of Policing have pledged to improve officer safety after the largest ever survey of the police workforce. But will the recommendations to standardise practices be heard?

The NPCC and the college commissioned the review in September 2019, and its findings from a survey of 40,268 officers, staff and volunteers was reported back to chief officers in November 2019 and January 2020, before the pandemic.

Its key objective was to present the NPCC with a set of recommendations designed to reduce the risk of police officers and staff being injured, assaulted or killed in the line of duty.

NPCC chair Martin Hewitt said today at a media briefing: “Chief constables already regularly assess the threat risk to their force to ensure that officers are properly trained and supported. What this review sought to do is compliment that existing work.”

But the review found the process for conducting these should be consistent, with a recommendation to create a national framework.  

There were 28 recommendations overall with a focus on standardising best practises around training and equipment across 43 forces and a call for further research into the more nuanced issues that arose.

There is an intention to repeat the survey in the future, but no timeline exists at this stage. The finances behind the proposed changes also remain unclear.

“There is no pot of money at the moment,” Mr Hewitt said.

“But as we as we develop and as we identify things that we need to do, I'm fairly confident that that commitment is there for both Police and Crime Commissioners and individual forces and central government, and I think that the Police Covenant will be yet another vehicle.”

While Vice chairman of the Police Federation, Che Donald, welcomed the landmark report he stressed he wants to “see its findings make a real difference” so it doesn’t become “just another doorstop”.

The following is a rundown of the review's main themes and findings: 

Training

Not all respondents had received Personal Safety Training in the past 12 months (81 per cent overall), which varies from 16 hours per year in some forces, such as Cheshire, to five hours a year in others like Norfolk and Suffolk.

Previously, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) recommended a minimum 12 hours’ PST each year.

A “notable proportion” were not satisfied with the training they had received, with one-third of respondents (34%) saying they were ‘very dissatisfied’, ‘fairly dissatisfied’ or ‘neither satisfied nor dissatisfied’.

Officers reported the trainiing to be “unrealistic and disjointed” with the majority of time spent listening, making them less able to put it into practice in real life situations.

The college and NPCC are to review and update the guidance on PST to produce a national curriculum with specified learning outcomes, protected training time with students and an agreed number of core mandatory modules, as well as optional supplementary modules.

The report said this was “at the heart of the review”, with Richard Bennett, head of uniform policing at the CoP saying: “All the chief officers in England and Wales have committed to ensure that consistency and level of training is met.”

De-escalation

Despite relatively high proportions of officers reportedly using non-physical skills on a regular basis, only half (52 per cent) said their training had taught them how to defuse confrontation, under half (44 per cent) said they had opportunities to practise de-escalation skills in training, and one-quarter (26 per cent) said that not enough time was spent training essential communication skills.

Mr Hewitt said: “The biggest and most important tactic and techniques officers have is their communication quite frankly. And where we really want to get to is that by using your communication skills in the training that we give them, and that's what the new guidance is about, we get to a situation that we're not having to use any of our use of force.”

Tasers

Kent’s Chief Constable Alan Pughsley is now the NPCC lead for Officer Safety. The creation of this new role was one of the review’s 28 recommendations.

He said at the briefing: “The report is very clear: Tasers are not without their drawbacks. They are fallible and they can and do sometimes not achieve operational intent. They can sometimes not work, and this can lead to injury to the officer, this can lead to injury to the public and indeed on occasion to subjects themselves.”

“Likewise, Tasers should not be viewed as a guarantee of operational safety. Officers should not become over reliant on verbal conflict management and other safety skills,” he added.

The Taser 7 which has now been approved for UK police use 

Mr Hewitt echoed this and said: “I think one of the things that concerned me was the debate was shifting into a place where as long as you've got a Taser, you're okay. We want to be in a space where officers have the skills and the ability to de-escalate situations.”

The majority of officers thought more frontline officers should deploy with Taser (85 per cent), and that all frontline officers should have the option to deploy with Taser (87 per cent). 61 per cent thought all frontline officers needed a Taser.

CC Pughsley said: “The response was not a blasé ‘everybody must have a Taser’”. That is a really mature approach from those officers on their streets who we ask to stand in the way of the most violent individuals.”

Three-quarters of officers and over four in five special constables said that they personally wanted to deploy with Taser.

CC Pughsley’s force is looking to be the first to arm their Specials with Tasers.

The report said interviews with seven Taser trainers from three forces suggested officers might be more inclined to use Taser to manage conflict rather than use their non-physical skills to de-escalate.

The report highlighted concerns around perceptions of Tasers and creating an image of coercion the more officers carry them. “Policing by consent is a key factor in the way British policing is envied and revered across the world,” it said.

It also raised concerns around the “growing evidence” Tasers were used disproportionately against the BAME population. Research has been commissioned to “address the current evidence gap in understanding the causes of the disparity and to make recommendations to minimise it”. 

Use of force

A total of 427,727 use-of-force records were made in 2018/19. Tactical communications were recorded as having been used in just under half of all incidents.

Speaking at today's briefing Richard Bennett said: “The best way of avoiding being assaulted is to not have to use force to restrain someone.” He also acknowledged this was not always going to be the case.

Assaults

30,885 officers were assaulted in 2018/19. The college estimates that in the same period officers took 71,308 days as sick leave as a direct result of assaults on duty, which Mr Bennett called “shocking and disturbing”. This is estimated as a salary cost of £4.7m, before taking into account cost of any after care. The Federation estimated that the total social and economic cost of assaults against the police in 2018/19 was £363 million.

Use of force increased the likelihood of being assaulted and 40 per cent of assaulted officers felt that colleagues with poor communication skills were more likely to be assaulted. 

Chance of assaults significantly reduced when officers drew their Tasers, but increased when they were discharged. This most likely reflects their use in high risk situations, and the occasions where officers have used them against a violent attacker.

In terms of officer welfare, the ‘seven-point plan’ to dealing with officer assaults aftercare developed by Hampshire Constabulary was championed as a baseline by the review.

The Metropolitan Police has since adopted the same approach, calling it Op Hampshire.

Deaths

Between 2008 and 2019, 92 officers lost their life while on duty. Fifteen officers died as a direct result of a criminal act. Two of these were PSNI officers.

A disproportionate number of officers, 49 (53 per cent), were killed in a
road traffic collision and 39 officers lost their lives during the commute to or from work.

Commuting is therefore the greatest risk to safety identified, which the report says is surprising given the “roots and intended strategic direction of the review”.

The report said: “This finding challenges the commonly held belief that officers and staff are at a greater risk of being killed by homicide than in a road-related incident.”

Therefore, a “culture change” is needed to raise awareness among officers and staff that the risk of losing their life when driving home from shift work is more than from being violently attacked.

While there little understanding from the NPCC and the college as to why this is, they recommend chief constables to be mindful of this in terms of staffing levels, shift times, working hours, night duties and overtime.

One of the recommendations is also to conduct more research into the reasons behind this revelation.

Cheshire Constabulary is currently undertaking a review of officer shift patterns, with the option of possibly introducing a new four days on, four-off based pattern.

Equipment

Mr Bennett said: “Every Chief Constable will review whether their frontline officers and staff have the equipment they need and increase the availability of Taser, body armour, spit and bite hoods, protective gloves and high vis to proportionate levels, all supported by the risk assessment.” He also said these should be based on local circumstances.

A third of PCSOs said the kit available to them was not good enough, with widespread calls to be issued with handcuffs and incapacitant spray. The report said this would not only be costly but would contradict their role and “intended image of approachability to the public”.

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