Frontline thoughts from a former police call centre worker: 'Targets were a huge burden'
A former police call centre worker tells Freya Pascall about the pressures – exacerbated by central government – that led to their resignation. Illustration by John Levers
Until very recently I worked in a call centre for the police, handling both emergency and non-emergency calls. I held this role for nearly eight years, but chose to leave recently as a result of the stress. Some of this was part and parcel of working in such a complex and unpredictable environment, though it was also influenced by the pressure put on us by Home Office targets, alongside regular operational changes introduced by management.
I was originally recruited in the mid-2000s to work on the new non-emergency 101 number. The initial training was comprehensive – we weren’t let loose without direct one-to-one supervision for about three months. After local publicity, the service broke through into the public consciousness after about nine months, from when we were constantly busy.
For the time I worked solely on 101, one of the biggest pressures came from social issues, where I often felt that we did not work sufficiently in tandem with local authorities.
Councils were quite good on weekdays, but cases would be pushed over to us at evenings and weekends – although this was not official policy. The 101 initiative was set up to induce joint working between the police and other services, such as social services, which are overseen by different government agencies. However, the reality was very ad hoc – in practice, rather than solely reducing the pressure on emergency services, we took on the overspill from a variety of other public services. The initial encouragement to use the number backfired and led to us being used as both a triage service and a one-size-fits-all solution to problems that are not best dealt with by police.
The force has now become better at saying no. For example, mental health issues are still huge, but a tougher stance by the police, and a positive acceptance of out-of-hours responsibility by local authorities and social services, has helped to reduce the cases inappropriately directed to us. Before this I would often receive calls about people who had put themselves in life threatening situations or caused enough disruption within the community to get arrested in a “cry for help”. Awareness in the Home Office, the Department of Health and Department for Communities and Local Government about these issues, helped for example by the Crisis Care Concordat, has led to much more joined-up working. So although there are still problems, this is an area where I’ve seen government learn and positively refine cross-departmental policy.
Although we all believed it to be the case, we never had direct acknowledgement from either police management or the Home Office that the catch-all nature of the 101 number had been a cause of the extra pressure put on us from other services. So despite the improvements made, I think this is why it was decided to amalgamate 101, the Force Enquiry Centre and 999 a couple of years ago.
After the merger, our extra workload ceased to be quite so inflated with work from other public services. However, our stress levels did not decrease substantially, as we just took on more from other departments within the police. Our budget was protected, but as efficiency savings were made elsewhere we were forced to pick up the slack.
This meant more crime reports, form filling and a huge intake of information. The statistics recorded and targets drawn up by the Home Office were a huge burden. Our call times had always been analysed to monitor efficiency, but pressure mounted to record more information on the demographic of callers, or type of crime, so that central government could quantify the effectiveness of their policies. This all had to be achieved without any increase in call times. Though I understand that processes need to be refined as far as possible, I always wanted to obtain the whole picture and show empathy to people in extremely difficult situations. This was praised, but the focus on data-gathering and targets drastically reduced the time available for anything other than was strictly necessary.
Balancing these aspects was a real juggling act, particularly for our direct management, as we all had different strengths and weaknesses and it’s impossible to please everyone. However, the disciplinary measures the call centre workers are subject to when targets are not met are draconian. As one of the only areas of the police not to suffer cuts, we had a great degree of job security, but in the end I didn’t feel that the stress-induced detriment to the staff’s health was worth it, particularly as callers were also suffering from the rushed process.
Overall the police has been refined in some areas, but the attention and sympathy that members of the public deserve has been obscured by a pronounced focus on reports and statistics. While I saw the joint working of public services improve under this government, I saw the attention to detail and the human touch suffer. After all it is hard to quantify these things, and I felt that the Home Office was much more interested in statistics which made a catchy headline or sound bite.
Justin Russell previously oversaw the MoJ's prisons, offender and youth justice policy
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