DURING the summer recess, I joined West Yorkshire Police for a 2pm until 10pm shift to get the front-line experience, and to see just how the demands on local policing are changing.
I spent the afternoon with neighbourhood policing officer PC Kim McCloskey, visiting community projects and seeing some of the great work going on at the grassroots Ovenden Phoenix football club, before spending the evening with response officers reacting to 999 calls.
West Yorkshire Police Federation chair, Chief Inspector Nick Smart, had only recently been to see me to raise concerns about an increase in assaults on police officers, and to outline how depleted numbers are impacting on front-line capabilities.
It was into the evening, when I moved over to response policing, that I joined PC Craig Gallant reacting to 999 calls. Only days before my shift, a female police officer had responded to a domestic call in my district. Disgracefully, she was head-butted by an offender, knocking out her teeth and leaving her with a broken eye socket.
It was not long into my time with PC Gallant that we attempted to stop a vehicle to speak to the driver. Having turned on the blue lights, the car initially sped away.
However, after a short chase, the driver eventually thought better of it and pulled over. PC Gallant asked the driver to get out of the vehicle, but he refused.
As he continued to instruct the driver to get out the car, a crowd began to gather, with some onlookers becoming increasingly hostile; passing vehicles also began to take an interest. A second vehicle then pulled up at speed.
As the passenger from the first car got out to get into the second, the situation very quickly escalated. PC Gallant found himself surrounded, dealing with an aggressive crowd from all directions. When he was forced to draw his baton while instructing the crowd to move back, I was so concerned for his safety that I rang 999 myself, believing it was the fastest way to make contact with the control room and stress just how urgently he needed back-up. Thankfully, other officers arrived at the scene shortly afterwards to help to manage the situation.
Amazingly, no injuries were sustained on that occasion, but I saw for myself just how quickly situations can escalate and how vulnerable officers are when they are out on their own.
An assault on a police officer is an assault on society. It is totally unacceptable that public servants, working in their communities to protect people and help the vulnerable, are subject to assaults as they go about their jobs.
Make no mistake, these are tough jobs, and while most officers will tell you that they understand there are risks, being a punching bag should never be part and parcel of the job.
In West Yorkshire alone, there were 991 recorded assaults on police officers last year, with an estimated 23,000 across the country. In addition, many attacks are going unreported or are being sidelined in the pursuit of other charges, making it extremely difficult to understand the true scale of the problem.
When I asked the House of Commons Library for statistics, by police force, of assaults on officers, it responded by saying that there is a lack of official statistics in this area.
A recent Home Office report cites that assaults on officers and police community support officers are not collected as national statistics. Instead, the figures are estimates based on two limited data sources.
To be fair to the Home Office, I very much welcome the recent efforts it has made to improve the system for recording assaults on officers, but there is still a long way to go.
Last year the Home Office asked forces to provide data on assaults on a voluntary basis. However, it recognised that there were flaws to that approach, concluding that “the figures… are not directly comparable at police force area level”, and that “the estimates are relatively crude, and should be interpreted with caution”.
As the data is not collected, we simply cannot answer some of the bigger questions. Is the number of assaults going up? Are some forces failing to protect their officers? Have cuts to police budgets made policing more dangerous?
We see police forces having to pick up the slack where there have been cuts to other agencies – agencies that should be taking a lead in dealing with some of these quite difficult social problems.
I am asking the Home Office to work with police forces to standardise the process of collecting that information. Quite simply, if an officer is assaulted, in any force at any time, let us record it. Assaults on officers must be the subject of robust investigations.
While officers need to play their part in that and follow up by reporting instances where they have been the victim of an assault, I also appreciate that they will not report injuries unless they have the confidence that those involved will be investigated and prosecuted appropriately.
I am asking Ministers to ensure that the Home Office is collecting accurate data about assaults on police officers – data that will give us a much greater insight into the scale of the problem and empower decision- makers to respond accordingly and for tougher sentencing.
If an officer is the victim of an assault, I would expect to see a sentence that sends a strong message. Assaulting the police shows contempt for our collectively agreed laws and all those who uphold them, and it will not be tolerated.
Holly Lynch is the Labour MP for Halifax and the daughter of a retired police officer. She led a Commons debate on police officer safety – this is an edited version.