IS it any wonder the police are at breaking point? In West Yorkshire alone, more than 700 officers and staff have had to take time off due to stress, anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder in the past year, resulting in the loss of 23,000 working days.
It’s a toll that’s more than doubled in five years. Assistant Chief Constable Angela Williams is diplomatic about the reasons why the job is becoming so detrimental to mental health. “It is well recognised that policing is a stressful job and the Chief Officer Team is acutely aware that pressures on staff have increased in recent years,” she said.
Ms Williams doesn’t spell out exactly what those pressures might be, but she does make the point that her force has seen an increase in demand at a time when resources have been so depleted.
There’s no need for her to go into detail. It’s clear to anyone with even half an eye open to the world that our police officers are under pressure like never before. In addition, they are fighting new and myriad forms of crime with reduced numbers; a situation exacerbated by the rising number of colleagues who are unable to cope, and need time away.
The sheer range of criminal acts and anti-social behaviour which some forces have to deal with would test even the most dedicated of stalwart law-enforcers. It’s simply impossible to keep up. Cyber crime, for instance, demands a constantly-shifting grasp of technology that few individuals, police officers or not, are capable of keeping abreast of.
However, nothing illustrates the serious gap between the demands of the job and the lack of tools with which to do it more than the ghastly phenomenon known as “county lines”. This is the term used to describe a form of organised crime where drug dealers based in urban areas pressurise children and vulnerable people to transport, store and sell drugs in smaller county towns. In the most extreme cases, these gangs take over houses themselves, a practice known as “cuckooing”, forcing the original occupants to take part or move out.
Some say that “county lines” takes its name from the phone lines used by organised crime gangs to communicate between towns, or the fact that criminals travel by train to avoid being detected.
If you haven’t heard of it – and think it couldn’t possibly be happening where you live – you might be surprised. This crime is so insidious, it could be going on in the house across the street and you might not even notice. Are the curtains always drawn? Do people turn up and knock at the door at the oddest hours? Do you hear accents from other parts of the country in the street? Do you often witness shouting and arguing?
I’m not trying to scare you. I’m only asking the same questions which police chiefs in our region are urging us all to consider.
It’s certainly happening in North Yorkshire where Detective Chief Inspector Graeme Wright launched “Project Shield” in July to crack down on the spread of the practice.
It is rural areas which are the most vulnerable. It is here where the dealers are seeking to gain a foothold. They know that people are not immediately familiar with their nefarious trade, so they want to take advantage. Not only do they gain ground in the turf war with other drugs gangs, but they seek to find as many new customers as possible for what they sell in order to make more money.
Simon Harding, a professor of criminology at the University of West London, says that the practice can be overwhelming for non-metropolitan police forces. He warns that traditional drug distribution methods have changed and police chiefs have been unable to keep pace.
Added to this, local services in a lot of rural areas have been scrapped, with village police stations closed and officers transferred elsewhere. “Some police forces have not kept up to speed, they are finding it a challenge with all the new people coming in taking over properties and setting up drug distribution houses,” he says.
It’s not just happening in Yorkshire, it’s being reported across the country from Cornwall to Northumberland. And then we might ask why so many police officers are on the edge. There is little that ordinary law-abiding individuals can do to tackle criminal activity such as the practice of county lines. Police officers warn that it is highly dangerous for members of the public to approach anyone whom they may suspect of drug dealing. The advice is to contact them in confidence.
However, there is one thing that we can all do, and that is to give our frontline police officers the respect they deserve, and teach our children to respect them, too. It is far too easy to fall into the habit of “police-bashing” and set entirely the wrong example to younger generations when most of us have no idea what officers are dealing with on a daily basis. It’s a small thing, really, but it could make the difference between a police officer carrying out their promise to protect and serve – or losing their mind.