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First at the door: how response officers are the 'backbone' of policing

"If you call us, we're the ones who come". Meet the Metropolitan Police's response officers who are helping the city's most vulnerable people 24/7.

PC Ana and PC Kirsty

PC Ana and PC Kirsty

Date - 17th March 2021
By - Chloe Livadeas
6 Comments 6 Comments}

This week is the first Response Policing Week, a new national initiative to recognise and celebrate the work of response officers across the UK.

Sometimes thought of as the 'poor relations' of policing, forces would collapse without them and the vast range of skills they bring to the job. 

Response officer are crime victims' first point of contact with policing -  sometimes the only contact they will ever have with the force. 

The week-long campaign wants to raise their profile, and make it known just how complex the role is and the impact it can have on mental wellbeing. 

The national lead for response policing Merseyside DCC Serena Kennedy, says the role needs to be re-evaluated and seen as multi-specialist in the same way as the medical profession regards GPs.

She also warned that training and development for 999 officers has not kept up with the demands of the role.

Metropolitan Police Superintendent Edward Wells is Response Team Lead for Hackney & Tower Hamlets (Central East BCU). 

He agrees with DCC Kennedy that it is the backbone of the service which needs to “make it a career of choice” in the same way other branches of the service are recongised for unique skills. 

Kirsty has been a response officer for five years and works in the Central East BCU. “You're a relationship therapist, you're a teacher, you're a doctor, you’re a mum, you’re a dad, you’re a grandparent, you’re an advisor, you’re a counsellor, you’re a psychotherapist. And anything else you might want to put in there just for shits and giggles basically. It can be really draining,” she added.

Supt. Wells said a lot of the time the police are called because "lots of other things haven't happened that should have", relating to missing persons or mental health incidents. He has been in policing for 20 years and says it’s getting worse.

“So if we think about mental health crisis in the community, and police often do a great job with what they've got available to them to try and make that person safe in that moment, but in every case there must be and should be better options before they get to the point of crisis.

“Actually, what we all want to see is them getting the right support at that early point, so that it doesn't then become a crisis that the police have to get called to, you know, because somebody stood on top of a tower threatening to jump off or worse, having jumped off.”

The Federation say the police are becoming more and more the 'first resort' for a multitude of such incidents and it's first responders who see the reality of this shift, 

Ana, who is often crewed with Kirsty, has also been a response officer for five years. She said: “I think what people don't realise is we come across so much mental health. You end up having to put so much time, energy and effort in yourself to give yourself to that person. And I think it takes a lot of energy out of us when we're trying to convince someone not to kill themselves on a daily basis.

“People don't think it affects us but it does.”

She said since the pandemic response officers have received a lot more mental health calls, especially from younger people a point backed up by  Supt Wells who says: “People go day in day out to really, really challenging jobs.”

He adds: "I'm really pleased that we've got this way of looking at well-being and culturally, I think as a service, we are much more aware of the toll it takes on our mental health and our wellbeing.”

The officers say something as simple as talking it through with each other after a particularly painful incident can help them to cope.

One particularly tragic call which had a big emotional impact on the team was when four officers recently attended a concern for safety response involving an eleven-year-old and his father who hadn’t been seen for a few days.

The boy was inside the property doing his homework on the computer. The father had died in the bathroom and been there for three days without his son realising anything was wrong.

The boy had no other family in the UK and is now in foster care. The officers who attended noticed he didn’t have many possessions or clothes, and organised a collection for him among colleagues.

Kirsty did the collection and said she had imagined raising £500 tops. Officers raised £1,000 out of their own pocket and today (18 March) a police car is going to pick him up from his school take him to Stoke Newington Police Station to surprise him with a bicycle, a Qur’an, clothes, toys, Islamic garments and headpiece, a Nintendo Switch and a football.

Kirsty said: "You see someone in such a condition at that age and they've got nothing. You think what can we do to try and help?" 

The team's Sergeant, Adam Hunter, says at least once a month someone on his team reaches into their own pocket to buy someone who they've encountered without a support network a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.

Both PC Kirsty and PC Ana enjoy the job regardless of the incidents that stay with them.

PC Kirsty said: “You don't know what calls are going to come your way. You could have a day where it's dead. You could have a day where it's really busy and you've not even had a chance to stand up and have a breather.”

They also said they sometimes go a full nine-hour shift without eating.

Supt Wells said his team don’t get comfort breaks as often as he’d like.

“So in theory, we obviously need to get people to have a break and be able to have some food and to stop and rest. I was out on patrol with a couple of officers from here a few weeks ago. We tried three times to get a coffee. We never did get a coffee, because the next job comes in.”

Thankfully neither of the officers have ever been assaulted, although others on their team have. 

“I think a lot of people appreciate the way that they're spoken to,” said Kirsty.

“You've got to get in there and be a mediator of sorts and be that person who gives them a different way of thinking about things. They might not want to listen to you right there and then. But once you get them and you can speak to them and give them some form of moral understanding and a bit of empathy.

"In our job we're not here to judge because everyone's got a different story.”

Supt. Wells says gender is not a factor when putting together response teams. But he added: “There can be that perception, which I think to be an outdated one, that police officers need to be big, tall men who can deal with the violent individual. I've seen female officers do phenomenally better in certain situations with angry men, much better than another man turning up because it creates a different dynamic.”

Kirsty also said men don't always like male officers coming to them, and the levels of "testosterone" can raise the heat of a situation. "The best thing that we have is our mouths. And we can get in there and rationalise," she said.

Ana agreed. “Talking to people, as clichéd as it may sound, is literally your best tool,” she said.

Ana carries a Taser but has never fired it and only "red dotted" someone once.

Some people in the street stick their finger up at the officers as they go by, or knock on the window only to scream abuse after they roll it down. Others smile, wave, and knock on the window to tell them what a great job they're doing.

Kirsty believes you can change someone's negative perception of the police just by building a rapport with them on a personal level. "That person possibly does have a fear of police based on what's apparently been put in the media. But you can change that opinion.”

Both officers felt the weight of the recent criticism of the police in light of the Everard case and the subsequent public gatherings.

Ana said there were "bad people" in every job and that it was easy for people to fixate on the police "just because we're in the limelight".

Kirsty said: “It’s just annoying when you get branded with someone else that you do not know.  Yes, we wear the same uniform, but that does not represent me. Same as ‘you’re a police officer, you're racist’…Since when? You feel like you're fighting a battle that isn't your battle to fight. But because you wear this uniform, you come under certain categories. And that's the shame of it all.”

Supt Wells says he is proud of the work his officers do day-in, day-out.

“They're the ones who've been on support calls down into Kent to support the investigation into Sarah Everard’s murder. They're the ones who've been up in central London on Monday dealing with protests. They're doing it all.”

Supt Wells thinks there should be stronger voices of support for officers. He said the police, and particularly the Met, were under a lot of scrutiny in the press with mistakes jumped upon and the widespread compassion of officers forgotten.

“But actually, in the small hours of every night, there are people like my team going to our most vulnerable in society and caring and doing the best they possibly can to help them.”

Both officers only wanted to be referred to by their first name for fear of threats and abuse online.

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Stu - Thu, 25 March 2021

30yrs later and post retirement and still they are saying that the profile of response officers should be raised. 30yrs ago it was demonstrated by an inverted pyramid. Response shifts on top leading down to the CC at the bottom, everyone in between being there to support response shifts. The elitist attitude of some departments, mainly staffed by people who got out of response work because of how difficult it is, is something they should concentrate on damping down. Some things never change and this is one of those things.