In­side Jus­tice

Tragic case high­lights po­lice call han­dling prob­lems, writes Chris Mar­shall

The Scotsman - - Perspective -

Among the litany of re­cent mis­takes made by Po­lice Scot­land’s call cen­tres, the case of Elizabeth Bowe is par­tic­u­larly shock­ing.

Ms Bowe, a 50-year-old vul­ner­a­ble per­son who was known to po­lice, was mur­dered by her brother in St An­drews last year.

A re­port pub­lished last week by the Po­lice In­ves­ti­ga­tions and Re­view Comms­sioner (Pirc) found her death could have been pre­vented had of­fi­cers re­sponded to a 999 call sooner.

Ms Bowe di­alled the emer­gency num­ber to re­port she was in a “do­mes­tic vi­o­lence sit­u­a­tion”, but de­spite ini­tially be­ing deemed im­por­tant enough to re­quire a po­lice re­sponse, the call was later down­graded by the area con­trol room at Bil­ston Glen in Mid­loth­ian.

When po­lice did even­tu­ally at­tend nearly an hour and a half later, they found Ms Bowe had sus­tained in­juries she would never re­cover from. She died three days later in hospi­tal.

Pub­lish­ing her re­port, Com­mis­sioner Kate Frame said: “Had Po­lice Scot­land timeously dis­patched re­sources in ac­cor­dance with their call pri­or­ity sys­tem fol­low­ing Elizabeth Bowe’s 999 call 1 hour and 24 min­utes ear­lier, of­fi­cers may have ar­rived at her home prior to her re­ceiv­ing the in­juries from which she died and thereby pre­vented her death.”

Fol­low­ing pub­li­ca­tion of the Pirc re­port, the Scottish Con­ser­va­tives re­leased fig­ures show­ing Po­lice Scot­land has recorded more than 200 “no­table in­ci­dents” in their con­trol rooms in the past year.

While th­ese in­ci­dents are logged as op­por­tu­ni­ties for fur­ther learn­ing, they are rarely a mat­ter of life or death, al­though they can be.

They are also sta­tis­ti­cal anom­alies. In the pe­riod in ques­tion, Po­lice Scot­land han­dled 2.2 mil­lion 999 and non-emer­gency calls, iden­ti­fy­ing fail­ings in around just 0.009 per cent of those.

Mis­takes can never be en­tirely elim­i­nated from a sys­tem which re­lies on hu­man be­ings mak­ing de­ci­sion un­der the pres­sure of time.

But the case of Ms Bowe and oth­ers – most no­tably the deaths of John Yuill and La­mara Bell in a crash on the M9 in 2015 – paint a pic­ture of a stretched ser­vice.

While po­lice of­fi­cer num­bers were pro­tected by a 2007 SNP man­i­festo pledge, the num­ber of civil­ian staff (those most likely to be an­swer­ing the phone in force con­trol rooms) fell fol­low­ing the merger of the coun­try’s eight re­gional forces in 2013 to form Po­lice Scot­land.

Ef­forts have been made in re­cent months to re­cruit more po­lice staff, help­ing make up for the many hun­dreds who left fol­low­ing the cre­ation of the na­tional force.

But the num­bers re­main down on the sit­u­a­tion that ex­isted prior to Po­lice Scot­land, with around 5,500 po­lice staff cur­rently, com­pared to over 6,000 in 2010/11. The ob­vi­ous an­swer is to em­ploy more staff. Yet Po­lice Scot­land finds it­self in an sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial bind, pro­ject­ing a £36m bud­get deficit for the cur­rent fi­nan­cial year, with around 90 per cent of its bud­get al­ready go­ing on staffing costs.

As part of its ten-year vi­sion, the force has been given more power to shape its own des­tiny.

The chief con­sta­ble will be able to de­cide on of­fi­cer num­bers and whether more civil­ians should be em­ployed to de­feat new emerg­ing cy­ber-crime threats. But its clear call han­dling has to be a pri­or­ity. Cases such as that of Elizabeth Bowe may be rare, but the as­pi­ra­tion must surely be that they do not hap­pen at all.

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