Police struggle with 'social work' role

The sociologist Egon Bittner once defined policing as responding to "something that ought not to be happening and about which someone had better do something". Many front line police staff would probably agree as their roles expand to take up the slack from other services that have little to do with the traditional police role of fighting crime.

Indeed currently for some forces over 80% of the calls they receive have nothing to do with crime. The Metropolitan Police Service responds to a mental heath call every 12 minutes; an increase of 33% over the last five years.

Budget cuts have shifted demand from other public services. The number of adults with mental illness has grown steadily over the past quarter decade but there are 12% fewer mental health nurses than there were eight years ago. The police often pick up the slack because they are the first point of call in an emergency. It is telling that mental health calls spike after 17:00 on Fridays when social workers finish their caseloads for the weekend.

But most police officers tend to be poorly equipped for their new role because stretched police budgets include very little money for training in mental health issues. At best perhaps half a day of an officers 13 week training programme will be devoted to the topic; the College of Policing now recommends two days.

Police forces are trying to adapt and mental health nurses now work in some police call centres while others attend incidents with officers to advise them how to respond. Some forces go even further with Durham funding the refurbishment of a vacant allotment for use by the local community to encourage well-being and a sense of purpose. It also sponsors a charity that organises local football matches and litter picking for volunteers.