AN assault on a police officer is an assault on society. It is totally unacceptable that public servants who are working in their communities to protect people and help the vulnerable should be subject to assaults as they go about their jobs.
Since taking up this campaign, I have been contacted by police officers from all over the country, most of whom have themselves been on the receiving end of violent attacks. They feel that the failure to take the incidents seriously has just compounded their frustration.
A man who assaulted four officers in the south of England earlier this year, causing serious injury to one officer in particular by gouging his eyes, was ordered to pay compensation and received a two-month suspended sentence. In Nottinghamshire, an officer was punched unconscious while trying to arrest a prolific offender who was already in breach of a suspended sentence. The offender was detained only after assaulting a second officer. He received another 15-week suspended sentence and was ordered to attend a “controlling violence in drink” course.
Increasingly, and terrifyingly, we are seeing acid being used as a means of assaulting police officers. In my force, a police sergeant who responded – again, alone – to a dispute at a garage in Bradford had acid thrown in his face by an offender who was trying to evade arrest. The offender had nine previous convictions for 19 offences and was already on licence for a four-and-half-year jail term. He was sentenced to 20 months, yet the officer was lucky to keep his eyesight.
Police officers who are assaulted deserve the full backing of the justice system. Since my shift with West Yorkshire Police, I have been made aware of at least five more assaults on officers in my constituency in the days that followed. What shocked me, and what thoroughly depresses police officers, is that sentences handed down to offenders fail to reflect the seriousness of the crime or, more crucially, serve as a deterrent. To assault a police officer is to show a complete disregard for law and order, for our shared values and for democracy itself, and that must be reflected in sentencing.
In West Yorkshire, the police have had to weather staggering cuts at a time when their case load is becoming increasingly complicated. Any officer will say that one of the biggest challenges that is putting additional pressure on the police is the changing nature of dealing with vulnerable young people and adults. In the 24 hours leading up to my time on duty, Calderdale police had safely recovered nine vulnerable missing people, and they were involved in looking for an additional seven the following day. The weekly average for missing people in Calderdale is 43, with 416 a week going missing across the force.
Just last Saturday I spent the evening with out-of-hours mental health services and two people were detained under the Mental Health Act, with police crews unable to leave either patient. One patient who had already been assessed required an appropriate bed, and the second required an assessment suite. With neither available due to pressures on mental health services, the police officers were tied up all night, putting extra pressure on their colleagues who had to prioritise 999 calls on Halloween weekend.
We have a responsibility to the most vulnerable people to keep them from harm and away from exploitation, but the police cannot be the catch-all for every problem. That is simply not sustainable with reduced numbers. To be honest, they are also not the most appropriate agency to be doing that work. The reality of not having the right answers to such questions is that the police are stretched like never before and, as a result, lone officers – single crews – are regularly asked to attend emergencies and potentially dangerous situations.
I want to return to the unpleasant issue of spitting, which I covered in a previous debate. I am all for informed debate about the use of spit hoods as a means of protecting officers from spitting but if we are politically uncomfortable with the use of spit hoods, I promise that a police officer somewhere right now will be being spat at and is even more uncomfortable.
As well as being thoroughly unpleasant, spitting blood and saliva at another human being can pose a real risk of transmitting a range of infectious diseases. We have a duty of care to protect officers from that, wherever possible. MPs may be aware of the tragic case of a policewoman in Kiev in Ukraine, who died earlier this year after having contracted TB from an offender who spat at her while she was arresting him. Only this week in West Yorkshire, a man with hepatitis C was jailed for eight weeks for spitting in the eye of a police officer. If the answer is not spit hoods, it could again be tougher sentencing, but let us have that debate. Let us have it quickly and let us ensure officers on the front line are protected.
It worries me that the ever-growing demands on the police, combined with cuts in numbers, are undermining their ability to do even some of the basics. I call on the Home Secretary and the Minister for Policing to recognise that officers are routinely deployed on their own. When an officer calls for back-up, only boots on the ground will do and numbers matter.
Holly Lynch is the Labour MP for Halifax who spoke in a Commons debate on police safety. This is an edited version.