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Cambridgeshire's new Chief Constable, Nick Dean, speaks about problems facing police

By Alex Spencer

Cambridgeshire's new chief constable, Nick Dean, says that modern policing has changed and that it is naive to think that it is just focused on dealing with crime.

He spoke to the Cambridge Independent about his first weeks since joining Cambridgeshire Constabulary from Norfolk, the issues he expects to face and his hope for the future.

But top of the agenda was the way his force is now partnering with other agencies to help the vulnerable in society, which he claims is now a major part of the role of a police force. In future, he suggests, police may be housed in multi-agency hubs with other services such as councils and social workers.

"You have to recognise that policing has changed. There's almost a naivety in thinking that policing is just about dealing with crime alone," says Chief Constable Dean.

"I joined the police force 26 years ago to help people. Of course there is a balance to be had between what services I, as a police officer with my legal powers, can actually deal with and am equipped to deal with, against those agencies whose core responsibility is to deal with people with problems such as mental health, homelessness, vulnerability and concerns for safety.

"You can't silo people into separate areas of need. You may have a homeless person who has no doubt got a drug issue or an alcohol issue and maybe delves into crime because they are short of money. The complexity of people being vulnerable means that is where the very nature of partnership working needs to step up.

"Society has put an increase in pressure on a whole load of people, from the very young to the very elderly, within our society and it is about how we respond collectively to those demands. "

The chief constable went on to explain his aim is to work in partnership with the NHS and social services in order to tackle social problems that may lead to crime.

"We see ourselves being part of a collaborative approach to dealing with social issues," he says. "We recognise that the calls within the control room are changing so we already have mental health nurses working in the control room. They take the call, deal with it and prevent police officers going out there in certain circumstances.

"My aspiration going forward is a more partnership-based approach where we don't have the wrong front door. If people walk into a multi-agency hub where there is a police officer, a social worker and a district councillor we can deal with the issue in front of us."

Chief Constable Nick Dean.
Chief Constable Nick Dean.

Asked whether he thought the police were bearing the brunt of austerity measure that have cut other services such as the NHS, social services and mental health care teams, he replied: "I think we are experiencing an increase in demand and increase in calls because of the reduction in public services across the public sector."

A new report out this week from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services is critical of the fact police have become the default service in responding to people with mental health problems.

The report, 'Policing and Mental Health: Picking Up the Pieces', makes it clear that there are concerns over whether the police should be involved in responding to mental health problems at the current level.

It emphasises a need for a radical rethink and a longer-term solution to what has become a national crisis.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Zoë Billingham said: "We cannot expect the police to pick up the pieces of a broken mental health system. Over-stretched and all-too-often overwhelmed police officers can't always respond appropriately, and people in mental health crisis don't always get the help they need.

"People in crisis with mental health problems need expert support – support that can't be carried out in the back of a police car or by locking them into a police cell.

"All too often, the system is failing people when they most need help. This is not a problem that the police alone can solve. Other services need to stop relying on the 24/7 availability of the police.

"We have grave concerns about whether the police should be involved in responding to mental

health problems to the degree they are. Fundamental change is needed urgently in the way those with mental health problems are supported by the state.

"The police should be the last resort, not the first port of call."

Cambridgeshire's Police and Crime Commissioner Jason Ablewhite echoed these sentiments, saying: "Police are being used more and more as a social service rather than a law enforcement agency."

He added that much of this work was dealing with vulnerable people who had mental health problems and should be cared for by other agencies.

"Wherever there is a risk to the individual or the public the police will always attend that is right and proper. Our first principle is we must preserve life. If someone is threatening to kill themselves and are hanging off a bridge we won't just call a mental health emergency team – that is a police negotiation issue," he said.

"If it is someone in their own home and a mental health case worker is ringing the police to say 'I'm a bit worried about them, can you go round because there isn't anyone else?' – that is not really a policing issue."

But Cambridgeshire police's response to the report suggests they do believe mental health problems are a responsibility of the police. They stated: "As a force we are committed to working with our partners, to ensure the best possible service to those people in our county suffering mental health crisis.

"In 2016 we developed a pioneering service whereby a team of mental health nurses from Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust (CPFT), work in our demand hub (control room) to provide officers with live clinical advice on the best way to help people in crisis.

"This has reduced the time police officers and staff spend dealing with incidents involving people with suspected mental health issues, while at the same time improving their confidence and skills.

"The service has also meant that less people have been taken to A&E reducing pressure on emergency staff.

"Police officers have also reported a better understanding of services available for people in mental health crisis across the county, and are able to signpost people to them.

"The service is reinforced by a Mental Health Crisis Care Concordat Declaration signed by ourselves and our partners, and we continue to work together to improve outcomes for people in mental health crisis at a local level."

The chief constable explained that a new threat has emerged in recent years, termed 'county lines' drug dealing which sees vulnerable young people targeted by drug gangs to become small-time dealers.

"There has been a dramatic change in drug crime. We have seen the exploitation of young people within the community dealing drugs on behalf of dealers who sit in metropolitan areas, such as London, the West Midlands or Merseyside.

"It's not only about tackling the dealers and suppliers, it's about safeguarding the vulnerable as victims who are being exploited.

"Traditional dealing on the street does still go on but we have seen an increase in this new way of operating and dealing with drugs. They are young people who have been exploited – we must look at the whole picture rather than make an assumption they are a criminal. We ask whether they are a victim themselves.

"What safeguarding do we need to put in place for that person to prevent them coming into contact with dealers who have exploited them and work with other agencies?

"How do we work with communities and partner agencies to identify these vulnerable people early on to ensure that the signs of county lines are flagged up to the right agency early so they cannot be exploited in the first place?"

"Austerity will continue no doubt for a number of years," said the chief constable.

"There is no magic bullet we have to operate in the here and now. We can either shake our head and say 'this is much too difficult' or look for opportunities to improve policing.

"We can either see the reduction in funding and increase in demand as a real frustration, as a real dilemma, or we can see it as an opportunity. My stance has always been to see it as an opportunity to deal with things more collaboratively.

"We deal with things in partnership rather than say that is nothing to do with the police. At some stage if we don't deal with that problem it may become an issue for the police.

"So it's about how we join those issues up at a really early stage of that call for help, across the board, and put in the right intervention from the right agency really early on. That prevents it from becoming an escalation of that issue and a more expensive intervention later on about an incident that has become out of control.

"There are opportunities with statutory services, third sector and private opportunities to identify best practice and technology which can help us and identify early doors vulnerability and put people in touch with the right organisation at the right time.

"What I have experienced over my first seven or eight weeks in Cambridgeshire is that people I speak to are willing to take those opportunities."

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