Protecting the protectors?
Attacks on police and NHS workers appear to be increasing. Prosecutions for this offence have increased almost 50% since 2018. The government wants to “protect the protectors” and has increased the maximum criminal sanction for the offence of assaulting an emergency worker twice in the last four years. It is now two years imprisonment – four times the maximum penalty for common assault. But increased punishment has not reduced abuse. As the government admitted in its impact assessment for the new legislation, there is only “weak and mixed” evidence for the deterrent effects of the new sanctions.
A new report by Transform Justice suggests that, not only are increased criminal sanctions ineffective in deterring this crime, they are also sweeping more people with mental health conditions, cognitive impairments and/or who are neurodivergent into the criminal justice system. People who are schizophrenic or in mental health crisis may lash out at police or nurses without being fully aware of what they are doing. People who are autistic may panic when they feel police are invading their personal space. Transform Justice estimates that at least two-thirds of those accused of assaulting emergency workers have are have a serious mental illness or are neurodivergent.
Transform Justice acknowledges that many emergency workers suffer violence from members of the public in the course of their work. Stories from police officers and A&E staff are particularly common, but such violence also affects staff on hospital wards and in specialist hospitals, as well as prison officers.
Those who employ or represent emergency workers, under pressure to deal with increasing assaults against staff, look to the criminal justice system as a solution. The government decided to signal support for public sector workers, introduced a new offence and harsher punishments for violence and abuse towards emergency workers in 2018, before making penalties harsher still in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act this year. Since the offence was introduced, almost 130,000 assaults on emergency workers have been recorded (the vast majority of which were towards the police), and approximately 75,000 were brought to court. As the chart reproduced from the court below shows, assaults on police and more likely to result in charges than assaults on other emergency workers or general members of the public.
The report’s authors, Fionnuala Ratcliffe, Alexandra Kimmons and Penelope Gibbs, argue that there is no evidence that harsher sanctions deter this sort of crime, and the government has denied any deterrent effect. The report highlights that the hike in prosecution and sentencing is having serious unintended consequences; sweeping more people into the criminal justice system, particularly those with mental health conditions, cognitive impairments or who are neurodivergent.
Lawyers told the research team that most assault on emergency worker court cases involve a defendant who is neurodivergent or has a mental health condition or cognitive impairment, and that this was often a relevant factor in the incident. In theory, the police, prosecution and court can take this into account, but lawyers told us this rarely happens. Defendants fall foul of the system’s “hard line” stance on assaults on emergency worker offences, and the paucity of information available to police and prosecutors about the person’s mental health. Existing tools for identifying mental health conditions at the police station are inadequate, meaning many mental health conditions are overlooked. The authors argue that a universal mental health screening tool would help, as would better use of bespoke diversion courses and restorative justice.
The report points out that there is plenty more employers can do to support victims of assault without resorting to the criminal justice system. Their first recommendations is a more empathetic response.. NHS workers shared examples of when they felt their supervisor was blaming them; police officers were advised to “suck it up”. Staff who are assaulted want “recognition, and some sort of remedy”; employers can provide this through consistent debriefings, welfare plans, counselling and taking action to prevent incidents happening again.
The researchers assert that assaults on police are correlated with police use of force and perceived mental health status of the person committing the assault. They say that there are serious shortcomings in police training for how to engage and communicate with people with mental health conditions. There is hope that new conflict management guidance and training will improve the situation and the researchers highlight positive initiatives such as street triage, which integrates the expertise of mental health professionals with the policing frontline.
The report argues that harsher punishments will not deter people from violence and abuse, citing the fact that the number of assaults on emergency workers have actually increased as sentences have got harsher. They argue that in most cases prevention – facilitated by better training and support – is better than prosecution. Where a criminal justice response is necessary, Transform Justice recommends that we make much better use of effective options for resolving the harm without going to court, such as diversion and restorative justice.
Thanks to John Cameron for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.