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Proportion of mental health calls to police doubles during pandemic, new report finds


May 27, 2021
By Blue Line Staff

May 27, 2021 – A recent report revealed that calls relating to mental health issues doubled during the pandemic. In an effort to improve the response to these calls, new analytics software is being trialled by police.

The technology, which uses voice-to-text software, was introduced by Lancashire Police in an effort to better understand ‘unlogged’ demand (those calls which don’t end up requiring a police response). Trial results revealed that, during the pandemic, mental health-related contact accounted for one in five of all calls to the forcean increase from one in 10 calls pre-pandemic.

The project is among the many innovative uses of technology by police forces. The report, titled Future Police Contact Management: The Single Citizen View, was based on research and interviews carried out by CoPaCC (publishers of PolicingInsight.com).

Other technology initiatives featured in the report (sponsored by Salesforce) include:

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  • Opening up a wider range of digital channels (i.e. web chat, online reporting and social media platforms) for the public to contact the police. One example included a badly beaten domestic violence victim, locked in her kitchen with no phone or keys but was able to call for help by accessing a police web chat service using the web browser on her smart fridge;
  • Using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify ‘non-police’ contact – both in voice calls and text contact – and signpost people to the most appropriate agencies;
  • Partnerships with Facebook and others to provide an emergency response to suicidal people who take to social media platforms “in their last minutes and hours”;
  • Enabling callers on smartphones to switch to video calling, either to give handlers a more accurate picture of ongoing events, or to allow officers and staff to assess the scene of a crime (such as burglary or criminal damage) after the event;
  • Wearable technology for call and contact handlers to alert supervisors to the impact of particularly traumatic calls on their health and well-being.

While telephony still accounts for the majority of public contact with police – with around 10-12 million 999 calls and more than 27 million 101 calls each year – the report notes that there is a clear underlying trend towards more digital contact, with some forces already receiving more non-emergency contact online rather than over the phone.

But with demand levels expected to continue to rise (especially post-lockdown), and the nature of the calls likely to become more complex, assessments of ‘threat, harm and risk’especially for more vulnerable callerswill be increasingly important.

Speaking in the report, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Toddthe national police lead on contact managementsaid there had been at one point a “simplistic expectation”: opening more digital contact channels would enable telephone lines to be closed down because it would just shift, manage and reduce the demand.

“If you think opening up more channels reduces the demand on policing, you probably also think building more lanes on the M25 reduces the traffic. If you make it easier to use and a better service, more people will use it,” said Todd.

He added that, while not everyone was “a lover of automated processes”, the need to ensure highly-trained call and contact handlers were dealing with the most difficult cases meant more non-emergency calls would require an AI response.

“Mental health, vulnerability and threat, risk and harm assessments are a much more complex environment now,” said Todd. “That means call times increase, the complexity increases and the amount of information increases. So, I think both the opportunity and the necessity drive you in the non-emergency space to more automated service delivery with AI.”

Policing Insight Editor Keith Potter, one of the authors of the report, said that while growing pressure on police call handling and contact management prior to the pandemic had led to concerns that the service was in danger of being overwhelmed, the “adaptability and pace of change” in response to COVID-19 had been “very impressive”.

Todd gave the example of West Yorkshirea pioneer of web chat in policing and the source of the domestic violence case mentioned earlierhandled 35,000 digital contacts in April 2020 alone, boosted by the launch of the online COVID-19 breach reporting.

“With forces increasingly able to offer more contact channels, partly in response to approaching European legislation but also to satisfy public demand, a digital contact service to match telephony may not be far away,” he said. “Challenges still remain, especially around integration, but the innovative use of technology and the response to COVID-19 seems to have strengthened the service delivery to the public.”


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