Magazine article The Spectator

Health and Safety Spell Danger

Magazine article The Spectator

Health and Safety Spell Danger

Article excerpt

Have you noticed that whenever there is an armed siege these days the police quickly seal off the area, surround the site with at least 20 marksmen, send for the trained negotiators and, um . . . wait until the victim is good and dead before they venture in to have a peek at what's going on?

I expect that's probably a gross oversimplification - and one which will have police commanders up and down the country in an apoplexy of rage. But it has the ring of truth about it, doesn't it?

I have been haunted by the case of Lorraine Whiting. She was the woman who bled to death while on the phone to an emergency operator. Her estranged husband had shot her in the legs. He had always promised to maim her if she left him. After shooting her, lie shot himself. Lorraine Whiting then spent more than an hour on the phone pleading for someone to come and take her to hospital. The operator kept her on the line saying, 'Hold on, the ambulance is on its way.' And then she died. The police didn't storm the house because they wouldn't risk being shot themselves. At the inquiry, Kent police said that they had no way of telling whether or not her husband was still alive - she had told the operator about 25 times that he was dead lying by her side, but the police said he could have been pressuring her into saying that. That was in 1995, and there are signs that things are getting worse.

Take the example a few weeks ago of the poor woman from Hermitage, in Berkshire. At 7.10 in the evening the police received a very distressed call from her saying that her husband had a gun. At 7.45, neighbours reported hearing gunshots. But it wasn't until 1.45 a.m. that police went into the property to discover that the woman, the gun-wielding husband and their 16-year-old son were dead.

She may have been better off phoning her dad.

Why are the police so afraid of taking risks? After all, as individuals they are often very brave. They wouldn't have signed up to the job otherwise. It's quite a puzzle because sometimes policemen do extremely courageous things. There was the case of PC Simon Woodrow from the Wiltshire force. He was called to an accident in which a car had veered off the road into a river. A man was standing on the boot of the car shouting that there was a woman trapped inside. PC Woodrow plunged straight into the very cold river and, after failing to open the door because of the weight of the water, squeezed through the broken window to get to the victim. She was trapped and bleeding ferociously from the neck. He stemmed the bleeding with his bare hands and held her face above the water for 15 minutes until more help arrived. He was treated afterwards for hypothermia.

So individual police officers often do things that you and I might not have the courage to do. But as a force they sometimes seem to have become - how can I put it? - a little risk-averse.

The answer must be one of procedure, and that's where that great bogeyman of the 21st century comes in: health and safety legislation. It seems to stop everyone else from carrying out their jobs, and right now it is stopping the police.

The Health and Safety at Work Act has been around a lot longer than we might imagine - since 1974 - but it has been applicable to the police only since 1997. Before then they were exempt, like the armed services.

I asked a former police firearms commander if he felt that the way police tackle armed sieges has changed as a result of the Act. He claimed not, and said that the police have always followed very strict but 'evolving' guidelines when it comes to dealing with such scenarios. Those guidelines are secret, so he wouldn't tell me what they were.

But one thing, he said, has changed as a result of the Act, and that is the order of priority in which the police are expected to consider the safety of all those involved in any type of incident. It used to be that the safety of the victim was paramount, followed by the safety of the police and public, with the suspect last. …

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