Updated: Mar 6, 2020
A police officer is assaulted every two minutes in England and Wales. Figures for 2018/19 show 30,977 were reported, of which, more than 30 per cent resulted in an injury. This is a near 20 per cent increase on previous year, but a whopping 70 per cent increase since 2011.
Other measures indicate this is a gross underestimation of the reality – with officers calling for urgent assistance 82 times a day. Though the law was changed in 2018 increasing the maximum sentence for assaulting an emergency worker from six to twelve months, we must do more than this in protecting those who are there to protect us. Here is why.
Home Office figures published last year show that 9,427 officers joined one of the 43 Forces in England and Wales in 2018/19. Over the same period, 8,727 left the service. To put it more simply, 92 per cent of the new entrants are replacing those that are leaving. I am informed that two-year attrition rate of new recruits is approximately 40 per cent in some areas.
Admittedly, some of these officers are leaving after decades of gallant service, while a very small number leave simply because they do not meet the professional standards required for policing. However, and as I found out while on a twelve-hour night shift in Luton with two brilliant and dedicated officers a few weeks ago, I can say some are disillusioned by what the role has become, which is a far cry from catching criminals. But there’s more.
A few days before that night shift, two female police officers were assaulted in broad day light while members of the public watched, and others filmed the attack. The quick response of Bedfordshire police officers nearby helped to apprehend the attackers. If I were a potential recruit witnessing such a scene, and how seemingly defenceless these officers were, I might think twice about putting in an application.
Home Office from 2018/19 s indicate that 2,370 officers are on long term sick leave and a Freedom of Information request by Channel 4’s Dispatches found that 500,000 days of sick leave were taken by officers due to mental health related issues. A Cambridge University research study of 17,000 officers found that 43 per cent reported sensing heightened levels of threat to themselves because of their exposure to traumatic incidents, including personal assaults while on duty. One-third of those surveyed suffered from flashbacks, which could have an impact on performance or longevity in the job. The research did find that 34 per cent of police officers who were forced to retire on health grounds did so due to mental health issues.
Each officer that is off work due to physical or mental injury suffered by an assault on the job, is one less ‘bobby on the beat’ to help arrest the 200 per cent increase in county line drugs gangs.
As alluded to above, the law has already been strengthened by increasing the maximum sentence for anyone found guilty of attacking a police officer and other emergency service workers. However, it is not unusual for such perpetrators to walk away from court with a suspended sentence or a £80 fine for choking and attempting to gouge out the eye of an officer as was the case recently.
Day to day experience of our front-line officers indicate that many see it as part of the job to be assaulted, which contributes somewhat to the under-reporting of such incidents. It need not be so. I do not believe it good enough for anyone to go to work expecting to be kicked, spat at, stabbed or run over by a car. Nonetheless, our policemen and women go about their jobs daily, knowing the risks involved but hoping to win the day as law enforcement officers.
Sadly, this is not always the case, but it takes a toll eventually. Police and Crime Commissioners, working closely with Chief Constables play key roles in supporting officers through such difficult experiences and I am aware of one such force where this is happening. We need a standardised support protocol to be in place.
I very much welcome the government’s funding of tasers for officers which was recently announced. This provides a much safer tool for officers in maintaining law and order, compared to the use of a truncheon or other restraining techniques. The role-out of body worn cameras will be more effective if magistrates were required to view footage during prosecution of cases of assaults on a police officer.
Perhaps we need to move towards a mandatory minimum sentence to send a clearer message. Lastly, this tide cannot be stemmed by legislation alone. It is imperative that we begin a wider societal discussion about respect for the police and other emergency service workers as integral parts of maintaining the democracy and freedoms we all cherish.