Safety in numbers?

Officers of CO19 in an armed response vehicle ...
Image via Wikipedia

Recently I have participated in The Police Debate forum on Linkedin. This was set up to facilitate discussion surrounding proposed government changes* to policing in the UK.

Many of these proposals are as a direct result of our nation’s current austerity requirements. One important item, which often comes to the fore when value for money is discussed is the issue of Health & Safety, a matter often castigated as ‘an unnecessary administrative burden’.

I recently read a partly unrelated Health & Safety article (see below) about lone worker issues. I say only partly related however, with policing ‘costs’ to the forefront of management minds, one thing that always crops up is police crewing policies. By that I mean, whether or not police officers should be operating as individuals or in pairs.

via Andy Farrall GradIOSH MIIRSM: “Recently I have been researching the health & safety hazards facing lone workers in high risk business sectors such as the security (manned guarding) industry… Both investigations resulted from the death of the security officer …” (Read More)

In Andy’s article he quite rightly highlights how decisions are often made on cost alone. How they should actually be decided by means of a comprehensive risk assessment process and, how  money saved now can actually incur much higher costs at a later date. Substantial costs resulting from the implications of litigation and/or enforcement action.

After serving for thirty years as a police officer, the latter part also as a workforce Safety Representative with the Police Federation, the subject of officer safety has always been important to me. I can also assure you that, if crewing policies are up for discussion between management and workforce, there is often heated debate and negotiation. That said, there is nothing in Health & Safety legislation that prevents lone working per se.

HSE guidance: “Employers need to investigate the potential hazards faced by lone workers and assess the risks involved both to the lone worker and to any person who may be affected by their work. Employers should ensure that measures are in place to control or avoid such risks”. (Get free HSE leaflet indg73)

In some ways its strange that crewing policy has become such an emotive subject. There was a time when policing was nearly always carried out individually. It is often still done that way today, even in higher risk places like the USA. Perhaps the TV portrayal of police officers always in pairs may have something to do with the expectation?

Although policing is a relatively risk high task, police in the UK usually face less frequent deadly threat (thankfully) than other parts of the world. There is however a general perception that carrying out the duties of a police officer is safer when it is done with a partner. I partly agree however, perhaps policing in pairs (as a norm) is actually an idealistic pipe dream? From a management point of view, routine and/or regular patrol in pairs is obviously not the most flexible or cost-effective use of resources i.e. response availability is automatically reduced by 50%.

Despite having served in one of the UK’s most rural forces (with a relativley small establishment), even I have experienced the death of three collegues whilst they were on patrol. In 1982 PC David Hague and Sgt David Winter (both single crewed) were shot and killed (in seperate incidents) by a lone gunman on the run. In 1992 I was the controler/dispatcher when Special Constable Glen Goodman was shot and killed and his crew partner PC Sandy Kelly also received near fatal gunshot wounds.

At that time routine patrol in pairs was an exception rather than a rule (with the exception of night shifts). Policing was carried out without the ‘tools’ of today i.e.  ‘use of force’ training, ‘conflict rfesolution’ model training or indeed the issue of  Body Armour / Stab Vests, CS/Pepper spray, ASP Batons, Rigid Cuffs and Tazer. Neither where there any Armed Response Vehicles on permanent patrol.

Even if you combined the above circumstances of then and now, if all the officers had been ‘double crewed’, were all fully trained and in possession of all the modern defence ‘tools’  (with the possible exception of Tazer), it is highly unlikely the final outcome would actually have been any different. Perhaps the above examples were ‘one offs’ and perhaps our society is a more violent place than it was however, double crewing policies are often applied due to risk aversion and not risk assessment.

Given that today’s police officer is generally better trained in self-defence and restraint techniques and, they are usually better equipped, it could be argued there is actually less requirement for working in pairs than there was twenty years ago? The answer to the argument must be decided by a comprehensive risk assessment, someone’s life may depend upon that process…

Officer safety may be a ‘numbers game’ however, risk values must be balanced against financial ones!


4 thoughts on “Safety in numbers?

  1. Well argued MrG. We only doubled-up on nights out of boredom and at risk of discipline. I suspect GMP is a particularly bad force, but during our long troubles with vicious druggie thieving neighbours, the cops issued a ‘blues and twos’ order for dealing with them, but exposed us to harm. This happened to a student friend of mine too, in an even more serious case.

    I believe cops should not work on their own in Response, though I did nearly all the time, even when miles from assistance. I believe the real problem is working under the potential fear of being on your own in violent situations, not the actual violence when it comes. The problem with sophisticated risk assessment is that it can be worthless, as risk is only partly predictable. IG is always saying they can’t tell which threats to the public are real in the mass of phonies and suspect the same applies to the policing situation. I’m sure better could be done though.

    I believe nearly all cops should be on a Response rota to ease the nights burden – nights are a risk in-themselves. Response should attract ‘dirty-money’ pay.


    1. You are so right when you say the “fear of being on your own in violent situations, not the actual violence when it comes” is the issue and yes, risk is only “partly predictable”.

      My wife was a Met officer in the early 80’s and nearly always worked alone however, she could always realy on plenty of officers being available to back her up (in very quick time) when required. Unlike me in Yorkshire whereit could be 30+ mins before anyone could get to me.

      The ludicrous split between response and neighbourhood teams has made it worse by effectivley cutting the officer availablity by 50% in many respects.


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