Caroline Pidgeon: the Met’s response to 999 calls is too slow and the Mayor should admit it

Caroline Pidgeon: the Met’s response to 999 calls is too slow and the Mayor should admit it

In recent months there have been numerous media reports about how long the police take to turn up to incidents. Is the Met responding properly to crimes that are reported to it via 999 calls?

Before I go any further, let me explain a few technical points.

Quite rightly, the police have a triage system for responding to 999 calls. Some calls are categorised as “I” (for “immediate”) calls. These are where the immediate presence of a police officer will have a significant impact on the outcome of the incident. Such incidents include danger to life, the use or immediate threat of use of violence, serious damage to property, and traffic collisions where the road is blocked or there is a dangerous or excessive build-up of traffic. The target for responding to these calls is 15 minutes.

Another category is “S” (for “significant”) calls. The majority of calls that require a police response attract this grade. Incidents it covers include those where an offender has been detained but is not aggressive, many types of road collisions, hate crimes, and situations where there is concern that a witness or evidence is likely to be lost. The target for responding to these calls is within one hour.

There are in fact two additional categories in this triage-type arrangement: “E” (for “extended”), where police attendance is required but can be dealt with by an appointment being set up with mutual agreement of the caller; and, finally, ”R” (for “referred”) calls, where the attendance of a police officer is not required at all, such as when telephone advice can be provided.

So, what is the situation on the ground? The most recent figures I have obtained cover response times up to the end of September of this year.

During September, the 15 minute target for “I” calls was not met in no less than 18 out of the 32 London boroughs. The worst response times for “I” calls were in Kingston, with an average response time of 22 minutes and 15 seconds rather than the target 15 minute maximum.

During the four months from June to September of this year the response times for “I” calls were not met in any one of those months in Bexley, Brent and Kingston. And it was not met in three of the four months in Barking & Dagenham, Croydon, Enfield, Hillingdon, Newham, Richmond and Westminster North (Westminster has two 999 response centres, North and South).

The response time targets to “S” calls are also being largely missed. In September, the one-hour target was  met in only seven boroughs. Incredibly, Havering, Kingston, Merton, Newham, Redbridge and Westminster South saw their average response times for “S” calls exceeding two hours – moe than double the target time. And in 23 boroughs the response target for “S” calls exceeded the one-hour target for four months in a row.

The full details for all the London boroughs can be seen here.

I fail to see how anyone can interpret these statistics as anything other than disturbing.

To phone the police, where the situation might even involve the risk of life and for the police to take over 22 minutes to turn up is simply unacceptable. That is the reality facing some Londoners. Yet when I have raised these statistics with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Met Commissioner Cressida Dick, their reaction has been largely defensive.

The Commissioner, for example, claims that more staff are now being recruited and that this should lead to improvements in call handling.  The hot summer and the World Cup also created “moments of huge demand” she claims, yet this explanation hardly explains such poor response times in September.

However, it is the approach of the Mayor that I find most troubling.

He has conceded that there have been some specific response times problems when the New Basic Command Unit (BCU) was rolled out in Camden and Islington (BCU Central North) and also in Barking & Dagenham, Havering and Redbridge (BCU East). He even accepts that performance in responding to both ‘I’ and ‘S’ calls needs to improve across the capital in general.

However, instead of accepting in full how widespread and serious the problem is, he prefers to rebut any criticism of long delays in response time by instead quoting the percentage of calls answered within any targets. The problem with a percentage figure is it conveniently hides the huge range of response times, which tells a worse story. Quoting the percentage number of calls that are answered within a target time also fails to address the fact that there is a big difference between response times that just miss a target, and those that miss it by a mile.

Pressures on the Met are immense. Its workforce is overstretched and its budget needs to be increased. We are witnessing a rise in crime and especially violent crime in London. However, if the Met and Mayor are to turn things around, they should start by being honest about the poor experience too many Londoners face when they first engage with the police. Trying to put a favourable spin on the Met’s current record in responding to 999 calls is not helping anyone.

Caroline Pidgeon is a Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly.

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