Scandal as 260,000 calls to the police go unanswered

More than 260,000 calls made to the national police 101 non-emergency number in the first six months of this year did not reach an operator, raising concerns over the effectiveness of the service.

The figure equates to 1451 calls every day that ended before the caller was able to speak to anyone.

Other callers faced an infuriating wait to be answered: Police Scotland figures show one caller to the 101 number last month was left hanging on for almost an hour and 10 minutes before their call was finally picked up.

In June alone more than 71,500 calls to the 101 number – equating to 2306 calls every day – ended early.

The figure is five times the number of ‘discontinued’ calls in June 2019.

Meanwhile, the average time taken for a 101 call to be answered in June was almost five and a half minutes – the longest it has ever been. It compares to June 2019, when calls to the 101 service were answered in an average of 40 seconds.

The figures raise concerns over the efficiency of the non-emergency number, which is regularly used by Police Scotland in public appeals for help to trace missing people, or for information relating to crimes and accidents.

The service, which gives callers a range of automated options before they reach an operator, is also the first port of call for people reporting non-urgent but still often highly distressing incidents such as car thefts, housebreakings, drug dealing incidents, minor road accidents and other crimes.

Andy Malcolm, Chair of the East Area Committee of the Scottish Police Federation said the figures raise concern over how the 101 number operates and poses questions over Police Scotland investment in call handlers and recruitment.

He called for the Scottish Police Authority, which oversees policing in Scotland, to raise the issue with Police Scotland.

He added: “The biggest frustration for rank and file officers is turning up at someone’s house after they have been waiting on the phone for a prolonged period.

“They find they are anti-police, they are frustrated and angered because they’ve spent an hour on the phone. It leads to officers dealing with complaints about customer service, rather than focussing on what the person’s issue is.

“How many people have information that they believe can help the police but give up because it takes too long to get through?

“It’s not all because of the pandemic,” he added. “There should be efforts to reduce the number of discontinued calls instead of allowing them to increase.”

One issue could be the broad range of calls which are funnelled into the 101 system, he said.

“You have callers trying to find out if someone is in custody, or to find out where a particular officer is, or for lost property. There must be a better way to take some of the burden away from the 101 call handlers.”

The number of failed 101 calls this year is already on course to beat the 2020 figure, when more than 522,000 calls were ‘discontinued’ before reaching an operator.

While in 2020, some callers waited almost an hour and a half before being able to speak to someone.

Discontinued calls for the first six months of this year are also significantly higher than the 2019 total, when 198,318 calls to the 101 number ended before they were answered.

While the pandemic will undoubtedly have played a role, pre-Covid-19 figures from 2018 to 2019 reveal a rapid deterioration in the number of discontinued calls and rising waiting times, despite no significant rise in the overall number of 101 calls.

Last June Police Scotland said a new method of assessing and triaging calls to 101 and 999 would improve the way it responds to contact from the public.

The change was one of several recommendations made in a 2015 HM Inspector of Constabulary Independent Assurance Review into Police Scotland call handling following the deaths of John Yuill and Lamara Bell after their car crashed off the M9 in July 2015.

Although a member of the public had called 101 to report seeing a car by the side of the motorway, officers failed to investigate until a second 101 call three days later.

By that time John, 28, was dead while mother of two, Lamara, 25, who had lain critically ill in the wreck, died later in hospital.

Assistant Chief Constable John Hawkins said the pandemic had placed “unprecedented demand” on the service, with call handlers often the first point of contact for people seeking coronavirus guidance despite it being widely available elsewhere.

He added: “Police Scotland receives around 2 million non-emergency 101 calls each year and in the financial year 2020/21 the average speed of answer was around 2 minutes 30 seconds. We have also seen an increase in online reporting during this period.

“It is misleading and inaccurate to suggest that non-emergency 101 calls are being left unanswered or are disconnected by our call handlers. Our definition of an abandoned call is where the caller has disconnected before speaking to an advisor.

“This could be for a number of reasons including, the caller has decided to redial and select another option from the pre-recorded menu, or police assistance is no longer required, or the caller has opted for online reporting through our ‘contact us’ facility on our website.

“We also know that a significant number of 999 and 101 calls are misdialled, where callers realise they have dialled in error and hang-up.

“Crucially, 101 callers are instructed to terminate the call and dial ‘999’ in the event of an emergency or if the incident is escalating. Emergency calls are always prioritised and responded to and approximately 600,000 were received in the same reporting period and answered within an average time of 8 seconds.”

He added that during the peak of the pandemic the force accelerated the national rollout of its Contact Assessment Model of triaging and responding to calls from the public which “ensures that every individual gets the right response when they contact the police”.

He added: “We are dedicated to improving our technology to meet the changing needs of people and enable next generation policing. This is why we have developed our modernised contact and engagement strategy where we aim to deliver digital services that will meet the changing needs of communities across Scotland in the years ahead.

“Public confidence in Police Scotland has increased during this period and it remains high.

“I want to assure people that we are here to help and that we will always respond to 101 and 999 calls with compassion and professionalism.”

An SPA Spokesperson said: “The Authority’s Policing Performance Committee will consider 101 call handling performance in detail at its meeting in September.

“A new call handling approach was rolled out from 2019 onwards, rightly prioritising response on the basis of threat, risk and harm, which means that calls can take longer.

“The Authority is fully supportive of this focused approach to prioritise the most vulnerable or at risk. The handling of 999 emergency calls remains the highest priority, with an average speed of eight seconds for a response.”

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992