‘Safety net’ of the thin blue line is
stretched by our social problems

Chief Inspector Lee Wilson at Blackpool Police Station
Chief Inspector Lee Wilson at Blackpool Police Station
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Blackpool’s top police officer says services are under more strain than ever as people in crisis with nowhere to turn look to emergency services for help.

Public safety and welfare has long been a part of a police officer’s duty.

But with budget’s stretched across support services, Chief Inspector Lee Wilson is concerned it is placing increasing demand on an already-stretched force.

Figures show that between April and September 2016 16,810 incidents reported to police in Blackpool – 33 per cent of the total – were classed as public safety and welfare calls.

That includes missing persons, sudden deaths, concerns for safety, domestic incidents and reports of suspicious circumstances.

Chief Insp Wilson, the man in charge of day to day policing in Blackpool, believes his officers are under increasing pressure to deal with wider social issues.

He said: “I’m concerned about areas of deprivation.

“Blackpool is top of the list for a lot of things we would not choose to be top of the list for and we have to address that.

“You cannot lay everything that is difficult at the door of austerity and the services that have been lost to the people of Blackpool.

“But there are pinch points, there has been shrinkage across the sector, there is a lack of funding for important services and it is the blue light services which plug the gap.”

Chief Insp Wilson said police were noticing an increase in callouts to deal with cases where there was no longer a ‘safety net’ to ensure people did not have to dial 999.

But he is proud of the fact his teams working in neighbourhoods across the resort can still ‘hold the line’.

He said: “It’s mental health, housing, loneliness.

“It is a big challenge for people in Blackpool, many of whom are dealing with social isolation.

“People do not have a support framework around them.

“Blackpool has a large transient population and that brings its own problems some of which will fall on the police.”

“We have high volumes of calls but there is a sense of pride that we can still hold the line.

“If a member of the public calls us we can still help, we will work to ensure we can always deliver that.”

Despite his pride in the way Blackpool’s officers go about their work Chief Inspector Wilson is realistic about the task facing them.

He believes police are increasingly becoming the go-to agency for those in need of urgent help.

Blackpool’s top cop has two-decades of experience in policing the town. And he is seeing constant rising demand from at risk individuals.

He said: “Where there is shrinkage, where there is loss of services people’s circumstances might determine that their only option is to call one of the blue light services. In a vast majority of cases that is us.

“It is going up every month.”

Chief Insp Wilson’s concerns are shared by charity and voluntary workers in Blackpool.

The resort has a number of good causes tackling issues such as homelessness, substance abuse and mental health.

The Ashley Foundation accommodates 100 people every night across its three hostels and 40 move-on flats in Blackpool – three out of every four residents experiences mental health problems, including one in four who self-harm. A recent survey of hostel residents found 22 per cent (12 of 55) had been taken to A&E or admitted to hospital in the last six months.

And staff say that while charity workers might know where to turn in an emergency, the options are not always so clear to those in the most urgent need.

Support officer Sue Tweedle said: “As professionals, we at the hostels know of the many services out there that can be called upon for an individual to get help so will always access those before calling the police or paramedics.

“However, the majority of members of the public might not know that. What they do know is 999. I think it’s important that the services that are there to support people ensure they are known about and accessible.

“The issue is when people, who are isolated and vulnerable, living on their own but with serious mental health problems, will call the emergency services when they are in a situation that is very much an ‘emergency’ to them. We’ve had ex-residents and even members of the public come to our door for help because they’re so desperate

“We have called 999 to hostels before but only in real emergencies.”

Charity staff know only too well how much pressure is on emergency and mental health services and when the system breaks down there is only one way to turn.

Hostel manager Dean Kirton said: “People need good services and support to be able to deal with their problems.

“We’ve seen people in crisis turned away from the health service because there’s not enough beds and we’ve been told to call emergency services when the mental health crisis team has been too stretched to help.

“The police and ambulance services in this town are fantastic but we know they’re at breaking point.”

The Police Federation, the union which represents front line officers, is very concerned by the increased pressure being laid at the door of police.

Rachel Baines, chairwoman of the Lancashire Police Federation said: “Officers will always do their best to help. But the loss of support services is putting an increased strain on them.

“Police are having to spend hours away from their other duties dealing with these cases.”

On Monday the Federation posted an image on social media of five police vehicles attending Accident and Emergency in Blackpool.

It said every officer was dealing with a different welfare incident.

Figures released by Lancashire Police to The Gazette show Blackpool officers dealt with 50,703 incidents between April and September this year.

Of that total, 16,810 – or 33 per cent – were categorised under public safety and welfare.

That included 1,100 missing persons cases, 3,794 reports of concerns for safety, 4,363 concerns over suspicious circumstances and 2,357 domestic incidents.

There were also 605 hoax calls to police and 7,764 reports of anti-social behaviour.

No two incidents are the same – but an incident reported to Lancashire Police yesterday is typical of the calls being received on a daily basis.

Police were called at approximately 6.45am to an address on Furness Avenue, Blackpool, to reports of a concern for safety.

Officers attended and found a man who was threatening to self-harm.

He was taken to Blackpool Victoria Hospital but wasn’t thought to have suffered any injuries.

Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust, which has responsibility for mental health in Blackpool, insisted it was taking measures to ensure all residents had somewhere to turn.

But the trust admitted, like many in the UK, it was under pressure.

A spokesman said:“The demand on mental health services in Lancashire is increasingly high and this is reflected at a national level.

“As a provider we are working really closely with our commissioners to ensure the range of local mental health services meet the needs of people in Lancashire.

“This involves determining the types of services needed to keep people well and supported within the community and also determining how many beds are needed to care for people who are not well enough to be supported in the community.   

“The latest developments that provide support for people outside of hospital include the opening of a crisis support unit, the opening of Home View, a ‘step-down’ supported facility in Blackpool and the development of a community-based Acute Therapy Service.

“In addition to this the Trust is working with NHS 111, North West Ambulance Service and the police to develop a new combined approach to those with mental health problems who make contact with emergency services, to ensure people access the right service at the right time.”