YOU never expect anything criminal to happen on a wet Wednesday in Whitby, but as I walked past the car the smell of cannabis coming out of the open window was overpowering. The driver and passenger were both enjoying a joint along with their coffee and sandwich.
I firmly believe that drug use is up to the individual and who am I to complain? Yet, when it involves driving a car, then that is another matter. Lives are at risk.
The people in the car didn’t look the type to take advice from a passer-by, so I decided to ring the North Yorkshire Police. I rang and rang 101 with no answer. Then, an automated voice then told me that they were having more calls than usual and I should hold the line. Strangely, they must be busy all the time, as every time I have rung I have got the same recorded message. I was even asked if I would like to have them call me back.
I wondered if the situation was worth the wait, but the thought of someone driving a vehicle under the influence of drugs on streets filled with half-term holiday-makers made me hang on.
I thought of calling 999, but didn’t know if this was serious enough. Whitby has few police officers and I didn’t know if anyone would be there to turn out. There also needs to be more information when you ring 101 of what is an emergency call. The recorded message used at the moment just isn’t good enough.
I waited. 17 long minutes I waited. The call was answered. I have to say that the operator was very good at their job. Friendly and professional, they took the details quickly. I could tell she was trying to assess if it was worthy of the police actually coming but I do not know the outcome.
When I asked her why it had taken so long to answer the phone, she explained that it had been an incredibly busy morning and that there were five other callers still waiting on her line alone.
One thing was certain – having to wait that long made me question if it was worth calling the police again or should I just mind my own business and not report anything?
In a world of financial constraints, it is understandable that non-urgent calls to the police are not answered straight away. However, my anger was soon taken away when I asked the police to explain why it took so long to answer my call.
Chief Inspector Charlotte Bloxham, the officer in charge of the control room, confidently informed me that they handled 6,383 emergency 999 calls last month. These calls were answered in an average of six seconds. In the same month, they received 16,944 non-emergency 101 calls, with 1,953 requests for a call back. That is an incredible average of over 600 calls per day of around five minutes each.
That is a staggering amount of reports for a few people in a control room to answer, evaluate and dispatch a response and all on a very tight budget. Although I wasn’t told how many people were taking calls per shift, I was informed that they had a staff of 80 split over 24/7.
However, people still do give up on their calls and put the phone down without it being answered. What worries me is that the public will begin to lose patience with the police and stop reporting crime and suspicious activity.
I know from my time in the police that some of the best information and biggest arrests came from members of the public getting in touch. Even though officers like Chief Inspector Bloxham and her team are working hard to answer calls quickly, I feel that no one should have to wait 17 minutes to provide information. It is obvious, we need more people on the phones.
There also needs to be more advice on what constitutes a 999 call. Even as an ex-copper, I was unsure that seeing a man about to drug drive was a matter for an emergency call, in this day and age of limited resources.
With police station closures and fewer bobbies on the beat, it is obvious that more and more people will use the phone to contact the police.
Surely then it is incumbent on the police to put in more resources into the force control room so that members of the public have their calls answered promptly? Calling 101 shouldn’t leave people hanging on to be answered. If members of the public take the time to call the police, then it should be respected.
Chief Inspector Bloxham said she will continue to monitor and forecast call demand and employ all possible resources to ensure they deliver the high level of service the public of North Yorkshire deserve.
What we deserve is a police force that doesn’t hide behind recorded messages and is easy to contact.
Lack of resources isn’t an excuse for lack of service.
GP Taylor is an author, broadcaster and former police officer. He lives in Whitby.