Call handling failures highlighted by Ruth Davidson due to ‘human error’ not centralisation

Written by Jenni Davidson on 10 November 2017 in News

At First Minister’s Questions the Scottish Conservative leader challenged the First Minister over Police Scotland call centre errors

Police Scotland - Image credit: Ninian Reid via Flickr

A series of alleged new failures in Police Scotland call centres were down to human error rather than centralisation, according to police representatives.

At First Minster’s Questions on Thursday, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson revealed that a freedom of information request by the Scottish Conservatives had turned up 200 errors in Police Scotland call handling over the past year.

That follows the critical report earlier in the week by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) into the case of Elizabeth Bowe, who was murdered by her brother after police failed to respond to a 999 call.

PIRC concluded that her death could have been prevented had police been dispatched when she phoned.


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Davidson listed a number of other serious errors in call handling by Police Scotland call handlers, including a suicidal man being told to hang up, call handlers twice failing to record a report of a dead body in the house, and another where a couple phoned to report their front door was being kicked in and the wrong address was recorded.

She also mentioned a case of a woman threatened by her ex-partner where police were sent to the wrong address, a man threatened with a knife where police were sent to the wrong town and a caller who rang as their mother and niece were being assaulted, but police were sent to the wrong location.

Responding to Davidson’s question, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the all incidents were “serious and unacceptable” and that “one incident of the type that Ruth Davidson has cited is one too many”.

However, she highlighted that an HMICS report earlier this year had concluded that improvements had been made to Police Scotland call handling and that there was “no crisis” in police call handling.

Sturgeon also it was impossible to guarantee that no mistakes would ever be made.

She said: “As First Minister, I would like nothing better than to stand here and be able to give an absolute categoric guarantee that, in a police system that handles 2.6 million calls every year, nothing will ever go wrong, but no country on the face of this planet has a government that can stand up and give such a categoric guarantee.

“However, we will continue to take all appropriate and necessary steps to make sure that the system that is in place is as robust as possible.”

This was echoed by Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Nelson Telfer and Calum Steele of the Scottish Police Federation on BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland.

Steele said the “problem, or the frequency, or the occasions, with which police officers get sent to the wrong address is not a new one” and that “despite the best efforts of all those who are involved, sometimes human beings make mistakes”.

Police had been sent to the wrong place under the old regional forces too, he said, calling it “somewhat opportunistic” to suggest the problems were a consequence of the creating the new centralised control rooms.

In a “tiny proportion of occasions” mistakes would happen and there was no system anywhere in the world that was infallible, he added.

Telfer noted that the errors amounted only 0.009 per cent of the 2.2 million emergency and non-emergency calls received by Police Scotland in a year and that the existence of a list of errors showed a lack of complacency over the issue because staff were now “confident in declaring mistakes and learning from them”.

Telfer said: “I don’t think the centralisation of call handling or any process we have put in place or any systems that we use to back that up have got anything to do with this.

"…When human beings are dealing with decision making, sometimes the decision making will be wrong, and we need to pick up on that and learn from it and move forward.

"I would love to operate in a perfect world, but there's always going to be that human factor and no-one lives in an error-free environment."

However, on the same programme, Scottish Conservative legal affairs spokesperson Gordon Lindhurst said this would be “cold comfort” for the people who had experienced the errors.

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