Police are spending up to 16 hours looking after vulnerable people in hospital emergency departments – with only one in five calls crime related – the chief constable has said.
Addressing the Policing Board on Thursday, George Hamilton said substantial changes were required as shrinking police budgets meant officers can’t continue to take the place of properly-trained health professionals.
Mr Hamilton said his officers spent most of their time attending calls linked to vulnerability and harm.
“For policing vulnerability means a person who is in need of special care, support or protection because of age, disability or risk of abuse or neglect.
“It’s clear that the society in which we live is complex and it stands to reason that if you are delivering a public service in this environment it’s not going to be straightforward. Often there is overlap between what may be a health problem, a social problem or a community safety issue.”
The senior officer added: “That means caring for others, dealing with vulnerability, protecting life and upholding the law are currently part of what police might do in any given day.”
Policing Board member Nichola Mallon described it as “ludicrous” to have officers spending so much time in hospitals.
The PSNI is expecting budgets to be cut by up to £40.5 million (6%) next year.
Mrs Mallon said: “Police have told me anecdotally that a person could be needing supervision for a weekend. You are taking them away from the front line and the impact that is having on accident and emergency. It is a ludicrous situation.”
Mr Hamilton told the Board: “It isn’t sensible to have police officers sitting in accident and emergency for up to 12 or 16 hours trying to look after a vulnerable person who should be in the care of properly-trained health professionals.
“We need to work closely with our partners to change this reality; and public service providers need the support of our political leaders to deliver the substantial changes required.”
He said there was an over-reliance on overtime because he had fewer officers than he required to meet growing and changing demands and that was pushing sickness absence to unacceptably high levels.
The chief constable also acknowledged other parts of the public service faced similar challenges and welcomed efforts to introduce a joined-up approach.
“To support the individual who is in crisis, or who may have a chaotic lifestyle, where a number of issues compound to place them in harm’s way, more often than not we need a joined-up, multi-agency approach to help them,” he added.
Mr Hamilton has apologised after a Twitter exchange during which he appeared to dismiss the pressure officers faced.
He told a user who said officers were taking on more responsibilities: “Dry your eyes, do the job or move on.”