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23 June 2022
With Covid-19 shining a light on the increased number of assaults on frontline workers, it has sparked a debate as to whether harsher penalties for those who commit this offence is acting as a deterrent.
Police Federation of England and Wales National Chair Steve Hartshorn was invited to take part in a panel discussion which asked the question: ‘Will harsher sanctions reduce assaults on police and NHS workers?
The event was put together by the charity, Transform Justice, to mark the publication of its report: ‘Protect the protectors? Do criminals sanctions reduce violence against police and NHS staff?’
The report states it takes a closer, evidence-based look at increased penalties for assaults against emergency workers and demonstrates the ineffectiveness of this approach on any level. It adds: “People with mental health vulnerabilities who are suspected of an offence are significantly more likely to be charged and spend longer in custody than other suspects in the same offence categories. Many if not most of these individuals have long-term, life affecting vulnerabilities that are poorly supported by current services and will not be addressed through prosecution and prison.”
Steve was asked of his personal experience of officers being assaulted when on duty and said: “I have been assaulted countless times and, to go back to when I first started as a new officer in 1995, there was an ethos then that it was part of the job.
“It was in In the early 2000s I think and, there was a court case where a judge basically reaffirmed that it was part the job to get assaulted but it never felt right because everyone has a right to go to work and to be treated properly. We accept that at times policing can be a contact sport, certainly if you are a frontline officer dealing with the public.
“It’s the minority of the public that cause these assaults on officers and it does leave lasting effects on police officers.”
After surveying defence solicitors, Transform Justice learned that two thirds to three quarters of assaults on frontline workers in police custody or in court involved someone with a mental health condition or a cognitive impairment.
Are mental health conditions properly identified and accounted for?
Steve was asked a question on unintended consequences by a member of the audience and replied: “The biggest one for me is the perception that police don’t care, and we do not want to invest in ourselves. Yet we desperately want the right tools and training to enable officers to deal with the public in a safe manner.”
He was also asked if the wrong message is being sent about how effective diversion restorative justice can resolve the harm for victims on out of call disposals and stated: “As PFEW, we have a dedicated protected learning time policy that we want to see pushed right across the country for everybody. We want it for our federation reps because they are involved in representing the officers who often receive these complaints if they have acted or allegedly acted inappropriately.
“The first thing that goes in policing at any time of high demands is training days.
“We get given very little time on the front line or in detective roles to do the training because you have an increased workload or respond to the radio. There is no time for my colleagues to catch up and do the learning they desperately want and need.
“We have been saying for a long time that we need the funding and if we can start to listen to what police officers are actually saying, develop the training, work with the national health service, the probation service, wider criminal justice process and the mental health services, as all of these programs sit on an unstable funding package.
“Policing gets a 12-month funding package, and it is repeated every year, why can’t we have - like the NHS - a minimum of a five-year long term funding strategy so we can invest with our partners, our external stakeholders, to provide the training for police officers?
“It has been said so many times but the people at the top aren’t listening and yet it’s my colleagues that get blamed. I’m here to defend the people I represent, policing as a whole has a bigger issue and it all starts at the top with funding.
“We are doing our bit and setting examples of our learning time, I just wish the Government and other senior police leaders did the same, set the example, protect learning time and then everybody benefits.”