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Can assaults on police and NHS workers be avoided in the first place?

Penelope Gibbs
26 Jul 2022
Nothing excuses assaulting us on duty but knowing how to talk to people to keep things at a low level until appropriate can go a long way to keeping you safe.
Police officer

It’s tempting to think that the prospect of a harsh penalty will make people think twice about being violent towards police and NHS staff. But most assaults on emergency workers aren’t pre-meditated; they’re in the moment, so the impending threat of punishment doesn’t work to deter people. Instead they end up sweeping more people with mental health conditions, cognitive impairments and/or who are neurodivergent into the criminal justice system.

Police and NHS unions and employers are understandably concerned about violence towards their staff, and are under pressure to do something about it. If criminal sanctions won’t work to reduce abuse, what will?

Our recent report calls for much greater scrutiny of how these incidents arise in the first place. One problem is poor training amongst police and NHS workers in verbal de-escalation and conflict management. As one police officer said in a recent #wecops chat: “some officers that don’t help themselves with the way they deal with the public and wind people up. They need to self-reflect if they could have handled some situations differently. Comms skills are key. Doesn’t excuse assaults but it can be a contributory factor.” And the issue wasn’t specific to the police, according to an ambulance worker: “Same for ambulance sector – very little conflict resolution training” (quote from launch event).

The problems can be exacerbated if the person has a mental health condition that means they respond negatively to physical contact. One seasoned police officer put it this way: Sometimes we escalate interactions completely unintentionally because we are not pitching ourselves to the needs of person we’re interacting with. This is not to say we have to be highly skilled in diagnosing people on the street, but we do need to be able to understand what may be going on for the person and how we can communicate effectively to get better outcomes. I say this with 24 years policing experience and as a dad of 3 neurodiverse adopted children who would really struggle with how the police might interact with them.” (quote from launch seminar chat)

There’s support for better conflict resolution training amongst the police. Steve Hartshorn, new chair of the Police Federation for England and Wales and panellist at our launch event, wants to increase the amount of time police officers have set aside for training and education.

Training a workforce takes a long time and costs a lot. In the case of the police, other less resource-intensive solutions include crisis intervention teams, where a smaller group of officers are given in-depth mental health training and are available for dispatch to cases requiring their expertise. Their aim is to de-escalate the incident, decreasing the likelihood of violence and injury to the person, police officers and others. The approach has been introduced in the West Midlands and Avon and Somerset although we await evidence on effectiveness. There’s also scope to better integrate the skills of mental health professionals into frontline policing, through street triage (pairing mental health professionals with police officers on the response team) and control room advice (where a health worker advises on the best approach by phone).

It’s not just suspects who are traumatised. Many emergency services workers are traumatised too, as Whitney Iles, chief executive of Project 507, said in our webinar panel discussion: “we’ve also got frontline workers who are extremely traumatised because of the work they do…everyone is surviving and no one’s getting the time to heal from or to work through the complexities around that.” Better support for staff to cope with their own trauma will also help reduce assaults.

Some solutions which seem intuitive may not be in practice. In the Twitter #wecops chat we heard several calls to stop “single crewing” i.e. sending cops out to respond to call-outs on their own. The thinking here is presumably that a person might be more inclined to be violent towards a police officer if there is only one of them. But another officer had analysed assaults on police in her home force of Lincolnshire and found that single crewing was not a common factor. In fact most assaults on police occurred in custody or when “double crewed”. This was based on data on just one area, but the indications are that the solutions lie outside response team staffing.

There’s some good data analysis going on in the NHS as well. One NHS Trust in Bedfordshire and local police officer Andrew Harris had looked at their data to see what could be done to reduce assaults on staff in a community mental health ward. They found monthly spikes in assaults on benefits payment days (thought to be related to some of the patients with substance abuse problems wanting to leave the ward to buy drugs). When they reorganised staff shifts to stagger breaks on these days, so that there were enough staff on duty at any one time, assaults reduced. The scheme has seen a 70% reduction in violence on the acute mental health wards they worked on, staff reporting feeling safer and a reduction in policing demand.

Do read our report, watch our launch webinar or listen to the Transform Justice podcast episode to hear more about how we can prevent violence and abuse towards police and NHS staff.