A child experiencing a mental health crisis had to live in a police station for two days due to a lack of psychiatric places, a chief constable has revealed, as he condemned austerity for hitting the poorest areas hardest.
Sir David Thompson, who leads West Midlands police, said his force – which is still missing officers and funding after cuts – was being asked to do too much, and warned of rising crime as desperation increases in the poorest areas.
Thompson has been central to key chapters of modern British policing, such as attempts to mitigate the damage from cuts imposed by the Conservative government after 2010, the fight against violent crime, and efforts to close the gap between police and black communities.
In a Guardian interview to mark his retirement after 32 years in policing, Thompson also:
Dismissed attacks from government and rightwing media that claim the police are too woke.
Condemned those trying to drag policing into the “culture wars”.
Revealed fears that the poorest areas would be hit hardest again by the cost of living crisis, fuelling a “real risk” of rising crime.
Said that bias explained some of the reasons that black people experienced more use of force and coercive powers than other groups.
Called for a radical rethink on tackling the problems blighting society, as public services work in “silos”.
Warned that police were being expected to do too much, including in the field of mental health.
The teenage girl, who ended up living in a police station for more than two days this September, was housed in a police interview room. She needed a specialist mental health bed, but one could not be found nationally after she was detained under the mental health act after her arrest. Police believe her stay in a police station was so unsuitable, given that she was experiencing a mental health crisis, that part of her stay was unlawful.
Thompson said: “We are the most accessible public agency, so we are kind of around all the time. We have become the agency of first contact, not the agency of last resort.”
He added: “It’s like my child living in an interview room. Well, you know, it isn’t really my job, but I’m not going to throw them out on the street, am I?”
Thompson is one of the most senior chief constables, and is vice-chair of the National Police Chiefs Council.
After the Conservatives cut police budgets as part of austerity, Thompson led for police chiefs on funding public services.
Thompson said it had hindered the fight against crime. “Let’s be really honest, we took more money out of the large cities where most of these gangs come from during austerity.”
His argument is based on his experience and last month’s report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. “It paints a very clear picture, that the last 10 years has seen us defund large urban areas, which we know is where the reality of gangs and drug supply come out,” he said.
He added: “I think it was a huge mistake to do it that way. I don’t see why if you are trying to tackle a problem, you would remove resources from the areas where it’s most acute.”
Thompson’s concern is that the poorest areas will be worst hit again by inflation and the cost of living crisis.
“I think that there’s a huge risk that our poor communities could get poorer,” he said. “I think it’s a real risk of those communities being less healthy, having more crime.”
After 2019, the government reversed course and vowed to replace 20,000 officers they had cut. Thompson praised them for the decision but said extra money spent on the new officers meant budgets for other key items were under huge pressure. “The inflationary pressures on forces are now dramatic,” he said.
The way the 43 local forces are funded is unfair, he added, meaning largely rural Cumbria has more officers per capita than the West Midlands.
Demands from inspections and reports are never-ending, he said: “I can’t treble my fraud department, throw more money into vetting, go to every burglary, treat misogyny as a terrorism crime. That’s just what the inspectorate asked us to do in a year. You can’t just keep adding more things, and more complexity, when the money is static or going down.”
Thompson spearheaded efforts to boost black people’s confidence in policing, but accepts progress has been slow, and says he “absolutely” believes that “bias plays a part” in why black people experience more use of force by officers. “Size and build features more significantly in black males as a criteria for use of force than it does in other groups,” he said.
Thompson said lawful use of force was not enough, saying it needed to be professional, with attempts made at de-escalation. “Lots of force can be lawful, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s legitimate,” he said. “We are not just aiming for lawfulness, but we’re aiming for extremely high professionalism in how we use force and search.”
Thompson said he was proud of being a police officer and the good that the majority of them do. He hit back at claims police were wasting their time on “wokeness”, voiced by the home secretary in a speech to police chiefs earlier this month.
He said: “This constant sense we’re somehow busy spending all our time doing these things. And the simple reality is that, the things that are highlighted, a Macarena or Pride events in Lincolnshire, they are minutes of time.”
“I resent us being drawn into culture wars.”
Thompson added: “How much time is that taking? It’s 80 micro-seconds of time in the breadth of what policing does.”