One of the recent success stories from my office is the increase in councillor advocates. These are volunteer council members from your communities who sign up to a scheme that puts them in touch with neighbourhood policing teams, provides them with regular updates from police headquarters and invites them to seminars with experts in policing.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak these face-to-face meetings have not been feasible this year, so we’ve concentrated our efforts in growing the scheme and working out other ways of keeping our councillor advocates informed.
A year ago there were 88 scheme members from a range of councils, large and small, from around Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. That figure last week stood at 256, which is fantastic in terms of delivering connectivity between our communities and police service.
On Thursday councillor advocates had the chance to put quiz Alliance Operations Commander Chief Superintendent Matt Lawler.
In a half hour session he addressed everything from problem parking on beaches to whether the force had enough resources to tackle breaches of Covid-19 restrictions.
Predictably one person raised the question of 101 call waiting times, asking what was being done to tackle waits of up to 50 minutes for non-urgent police inquiries to be dealt with.
This is something that I am all too aware that our communities are concerned about. It’s why last month I told the last Police and Crime Panel of my intention to launch a formal scrutiny programme for 101. And it’s why we’ve invested heavily over recent years to refine and improve the service.
In many ways the 101 service has been a victim of its own success. People are well aware that they can contact their police force using this telephone service. Perhaps not enough people understand that ‘WebChat’ and the ‘Contact us’ form on the police website are equally good, if not better, ways of contacting the force.
A ‘deep dive’ of the service recently showed that use of these relatively new online contact methods has increased, with 159,643 contacts using these methods in the year to July 2020. This is great news but a number still dwarfed by 581,000 phone calls to 101 in the same period. These calls are less efficient, as a contact centre member of staff can handle more than one webchat at a time.
Since 2016 more than £1.3m has been invested in technology to ensure calls are most appropriately and efficiently dealt with. WebChat, which went live in 2018, was one of the more significant additions. As was last year’s introduction of a voice recognition system that helps to prioritise calls relating to domestic abuse, sexual violence, missing people, hate crimes and road traffic incidents.
The force is now publishing estimated call waiting times for 101 on its website, helping people who have a non-urgent call to avoid peak times.
Since the start of this year further investment has been made to increase resilience in the 999 and 101 call centres by using wider resources. This has included training 999 despatchers and front desk staff to answer 999 and 101 calls and to respond to 101 emails in periods of low demand.
And earlier this year, as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, student officers were trained to answer calls to add to the service’s resilience in case contact centre staff became absent.
The next step will be to embark on a scrutiny programme. One element of this work with consist of a panel of independent people to examine 101 performance. Included on that panel will be councillor advocates, representing their communities and the voices of service users.
It is therefore important that people understand what are police matters and what are not. Noise nuisances, inconsiderate parking and dog fouling are, in most cases, matters that your local authority has the power and resources to tackle, and are not generally dealt with by police.
Of the calls to 101 in the year to July 2020 an incredible 22,188 relate to missing people. Many of these cases are because of systematic failures of adult and social care, and in the long term we must work with partners to ensure that those in the care of the state – particularly children and the vulnerable – do not go missing in the first place.
The force has its part to play in letting the public understand this and how to best contact the right person or organisation. The force’s AskNED online directory and recorded messaging system helps with this and I was pleased to hear last week that force incident managers will be able to gain control of the Devon and Cornwall Police social media accounts outside normal working hours. This will help social media users know about large scale incidents like major road collisions. It should reduce call volume and should result in a drop in multiple calls about the same incidents.
I hope that the scrutiny my office will be able to provide will ultimately result in further service improvements. Like so many policing issues, its performance can be made better through community feedback and involvement, as well as intelligent and targeted investment.