A recent webinar run by the criminal justice team at GamCare (with whom I’ve been working over the last nine months) explored the issue of how to improve our identification of and support for people with gambling problems who have contact with the police.
Research by the Howard League Gambling Commission presented at the webinar found that four in 10 police forces in England and Wales are missing opportunities to detect, and therefore deal with, crime linked to gambling because they do not ask about it when interviewing people in custody.
Although gambling harms and addiction have been found to be connected to offences including violence, theft, arson and criminal damage, only about two in 10 forces screen for them routinely in custody suites. Of the other forces, only half appear to be aware of the issue.
The webinar focused on ways to improve this situation.
Speakers and audience members at the webinar highlighted a number of key challenges which need to be overcome if we are to succeed in providing support to a growing number of people whose gambling is bringing them in contact with the criminal justice system. Improving identification and support at the point of arrest is obviously key to any early intervention strategy. These challenges include:
- The first challenge is the level of awareness of the growing availability of gambling support and treatment. There has been a rapid rise in the range of gambling treatment available across the country, including the development of seven new NHS gambling clinics. GamCare and its treatment partners provide a range of online and in person treatment options, with GamCare’s National Helpline (0808 8020 133) the best starting point for many. The needs of women gamblers are also being increasingly recognised. However, analysis of Helpline referral data reveals a very small proportion of referrals and contacts come from the criminal justice system.
- The second challenge is that people with gambling problems are not easily identified as a group. Unlike people with drug and/or alcohol problems, they do not sometimes turn up for appointments intoxicated or showing symptoms of withdrawal. Nor is there a typical offence profile for people with gambling problems. Before starting this work, I had assumed that most people with gambling problems who came into contact with the CJS would do so because of offences of theft or deception, needing to secure funds to feed their gambling problem. However, that research study by the Howard League suggests this is not the case. The researchers used Freedom of Information Requests sent to every police force in England & Wales to ask for information about crimes recorded between 1 January 2019 and 31 December 2020 with the key word “gambling”. Researchers categorised all the crimes where gambling was mentioned and found that 45% recorded crimes where gambling was mentioned were in the violence against the person category, almost double the proportion (24%) in the theft category.
- A further challenge lies in the fact that many people whose gambling has escalated to the point where it causes them problems, have learnt to conceal their activities from family and friends and are unlikely to disclose gambling as a concern until they have developed a level of trust in a professional helping relationship.
- Finally, as with most addictive behaviours, people with gambling problems experience considerable stigma which makes them reluctant to disclose their gambling needs. Some participants (including those from police services) noted that police culture itself may be a barrier to disclosure since most services are not supportive of staff with their own gambling problems which may make some officers reluctant to engage with the issue.
Webinar participants suggested a range of measures to improve the current situation (several of which were in place in some areas). These included better links between police custody services and community diversion schemes with local gambling support services. Other recommendations included:
- Routine gambling screening for everyone arrested.
- Gambling training to police and other staff providing custody and diversion services.
- It was known that the Liaison and Diversion service is currently revising its national specification to highlight the needs of people with gambling problems.
It was also felt important to develop a number of pilot schemes in this area in order to develop a blueprint of an effective gambling identification and intervention service which trialled different models of support including one-to-one work, groupwork and digital learning modules.