Health and Safety? Whose Health and Safety?

In an alarming story  last month, a coroner heard that three police officers watched for ten minutes as a drunk man struggled in the river Exe before two passers by, Greg Clifford and Ryan Curwen, admonished them.  Astonishingly, when it was suggested that they might be rescuing the man, Victor Greenwood, they were told that the officers wouldn’t be so bold ‘but you can if you want to’.  The men did so, but were unable to save Mr Greenwood.  Bizarrely, one of the officers then had the wherewithal to get in a canoe, from where he dived into the water, begging the question why he didn’t just get in the river as soon as he saw Mr Greenwood in it.  It was, of course, too late.

This story is one of several disturbing examples of police inaction over the past few years.  In 2004, armed police waited for two hours before declaring the scene of a shooting safe.  They did not intervene for over an hour whilst paramedics waited to administer urgent first aid, notwithstanding 999 calls having made clear that the gunmen had fled.  Two women, Vicky and Emma Walton, died.  And in 2007 two Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) watched as a ten year old boy, Jordon Lyon, drowned in a pond in Wigan.  Again, two bystanders were able to wade (not swim) into the pond to attempt to save him.  Strangely, no harm befell them.  Yet Assistant Chief Constable Dave Thompson said that officers ‘were not expected to rescue people from water and they could not see where Jordon was in the lake’, which does not quite explain how the anglers were able to spot him.

These examples (and there are many more) beg the question: what are police officers for?  Are they there merely to investigate crimes and provide general security? Or are they on duty to protect people – both from others and from their natural environment.  Had any of these examples been listed a mere twenty years ago, the general reaction would have been one of astonishment.  The officers involved would have been likely to have faced sanctions but, most importantly of all, would certainly have been made to feel shame.

In an article written after the de Menenez Health and Safety verdicts Bernard Hogan Howe, Chief Constable of Mersyside, argued convincingly that the culture of police officers putting their own safety first can be traced directly back to the Police (Health and Safety) Act 1997.  I agree (although not with his analysis of the de Menenz fiasco).  Prior to that Act, police forces, not being lawful ‘employers’ of police constables (for rather esoteric legal reasons) were not subject to the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Of course, it is right that health and safety legislation applies to officers in their offices and during non-physical training.  But to apply the legislation to all their activities, leading to the prosecution of two Met Commissioners for failing to warn officers not to climb on roofs, when the officers in question were doing so in order to attempt to rescue a man from a suicide attempt, puts a higher premium on their safety than on that of the public.  How many more Victor Greenwoods must drown before we recognise this?

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4 Comments

  1. Jon Rollason said,

    10 June, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    There are (at least) two difficulties with Francis’ approach here.

    We cannot wind back the clock to the halcyon days when a police officer would have leapt heroically into a raging torrent to rescue a cute kitten. Health and safety consciousness among the constabulary is here to stay. If police officers know that they will be publicly shamed or reprimanded for failing to risk their lives in the service of stupid people who have got into trouble while doing dangerous things we may expect only one outcome – they will intervene earlier to prevent people getting themselves into trouble in the first place. Victor Greenwood’s death could perhaps have been prevented by a constable taking a dip earlier. It could also have been prevented by arresting him for being drunk and disorderly and insisting that he sleep it off in the cells. Only one of these courses of action entails a risk of drowning for the officer, so we could expect that they would adopt that course. Pre-emptive police harrassment of anyone appearing likely to endanger themselves with a resulting risk to the safety of officers would follow. People generally dislike contact with police fficers, which is rarely a rewarding or pleasnat experience. If the price of avoiding ever more intrusive contact with them is a more whole-hearted adoption of the maxim “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won’t drown” then so be it.

    Secondly, Francis avoids mention of recent events in Cumbria, in which unarmed officers in a vehicle “not suitable for high-speed pursuit” allowed a heavily armed man to escape when he threatened them. The officers have their chief constable’s full support. If they did not, the demand from the force that all officers be routinely armed would be overwhelming. We cannot today expect officers voluntarily to expose themselves to serious risks posed by criminals without giving them considerable firepower as a matter of routine. A force that is prepared to take the risk of its officers being shot is going to want to mitigate that risk by giving them the capacity to shoot back. Basically useless in dangerous situations or routinely armed is the choice here.

    Of course, packing a handgun, body armour and a rifle in the car is much more appealling to the police mindset than packing water-wings, but the considerations are similar.

    • francishoar said,

      10 June, 2010 at 4:01 pm

      Firstly, I deliberately didn’t mention Cumbria for exactly the reason Jon suggests. We are far safer without armed police and I don’t believe many in this country have the stomach for them.

      I think Jon overstates the risk of ‘turning the clock back’ (not very far – the 1990s weren’t exactly the 1950s). The climate today is for many police officers (not all – I’m sure there are many examples of police bravery to put against the instances I cite) to consider their safety before that of the public they are there to protect. That is just wrong. Yes, of course Mr Greenwood was drunk. But this is the river Exe, not the Niagara Falls. Two men jumped in and then the officer himself. Why couldn’t he have done that immediately? Why is it wrong to expect police officers to do that? The suggestion that officers would be more likely to arrest him for drunk and disorderly misses the point (and, incidentely, I’m sure Mr Greenwood’s family would rather he was arrested than that he died in any event). Once he was seen in the river, a police officer should have reacted instinctively to do all in his power to save him. His initial reaction, rather, showed contempt. We are right to be appalled by that and right to ask why he has that attitude.

  2. Alex Deane said,

    10 June, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    I agree entirely with this analysis and share the quiet rage which I suspect lies behind it.

  3. P.J Leonard said,

    10 September, 2010 at 8:52 am

    Health and Safety regulations are widely regarded as a joke. They have escalated costs of small businesses and indirectly contributed vast sums to the coffers of the paper industry. One cannot but wonder if they have cost more lives than they have saved.


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