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More than half the people who dial 101 non-emergency service don't get an answer from Kent Police

The number of crimes reported to Kent Police has dropped by 14,000 in the last year.

While this could be a sign of better behaviour or improved policing on our streets, many point to the ineffective 101 service as the reason people have stopped reporting crime. Alan Smith reports...

Don't call us on this number.

That is the gist of the message that the public currently receives when they try to contact Kent Police on the national 101 number.

Police say the service, which was brought in across the country in 2012 for the public to speak to the police about all non-emergency matters, is a vital tool in their armoury.

But statistics show that in July some 55% of all 101 calls went unanswered. Many callers are reporting lengthy waits for a response, sometimes running into hours.

The frustration at the service is being felt across the county.

When asked for people's experiences of the service, the best result KentOnline found was on September 26, when one call was answered after only 10 minutes. But a call on October 2, took 40 minutes for a call-handler to respond.

And two callers on October 15 simply gave up and rang off after waiting for 35 minutes and 41 minutes respectively.

Control room staff shortages are to blame
Control room staff shortages are to blame

Last Tuesday, KM Group's Rob Wills had his motorcycle stolen from a car park in Strood, shortly before 10pm.

He said: "I tried phoning 101 straight away. I thought if the thieves were still in the area, a police patrol might catch them wheeling it away."

He tried three times that evening to report the theft on 101, giving up after waits of 27 minutes, 22 minutes and 49 minutes.

Finally he used the police website's chat facility - and got a response.

But the next day, he realised that he hadn't been given a crime reference number that he needed for his insurance company. He made another call to 101 at 2.05pm which was answered - after 'only' 15 minutes.

We spoke to one woman in Maidstone who has suffered persistent problems with anti-social behaviour from off-road bikers - and has tried to report the instances on numerous occasions via 101.

A member of the public was unable to get through to report nuisance bikers
A member of the public was unable to get through to report nuisance bikers

She said: "On the first occasion, I put up with the bikers for over an hour but then had had enough and tried to dial 101, but guess what - I got no answer. I rang for over an hour."

The next day she tried again: "My day consisted of five hours listening to the sound of a yobbo revving his bike which was clearly audible above my TV. About 3pm, I tried again to ring 101. I held on for an hour and a half, but still no answer."

On the third day, she said: "I put up with the bikes for more than an hour and then decided to ring 101 but guess what, the recorded message had been changed to something which more or less says 'Don’t bother ringing us.'"

She said: "Do the police really wonder why it gets to us? I am at my wits end and the police just don’t care."

There have also been numerous complaints across social media.

One woman said: "101 is a joke. I was on hold for over three hours. They leave you hanging for so long with no intention of answering the phone."

Another said: "It took me four attempts one evening and a total of one and a half hours before I actually spoke to someone. Totally useless."

The public's view of 101
The public's view of 101

A third said: "If residents do not feel they can get through or be listened to, there does not seem to be any point to it."

One cynic observed: "101 is just there to keep crime reporting down."

But amid growing complaints from the public about the length of the wait to be connected, Kent Police has recently changed the recorded message that all callers to 101 initially receive, encouraging them to go online or use the police web-chat facility to report crimes instead.

The message begins: "If your call is an emergency, please hang up and dial 999.

"If your call is not an emergency, the quickest way to contact us is via our website and on live chat which is available 24-hours a day. Please do go online."

The recorded voice goes on to repeat the same message in slightly different ways twice more before conceding: "If you are unable to get online and you would like to report a crime, incident or anti-social behaviour, press 4."

It takes 2 minutes and 37 seconds to reach that point and it is only at that stage that the phone begins to ring for the call handler.

Many find that using the online reporting service is no more help.

The public have to choose from a limited number of options as answers to each stage.

Very often the automated response they receive is: "In this situation we'd like you to call us on 101."

When attempting to report a crime online, you are often referred back to dialling 101
When attempting to report a crime online, you are often referred back to dialling 101

Richard Hunt is a representative for the North Loose Residents Association in Maidstone on the Safer Maidstone police liaison group.

He said: "I've given up trying to report incidents on 101. You can just never get through.

"Especially now there's this new answerphone message which basically says 'don't bother.'"

The lack of response is not only extremely distressing for the public, but also means that many crimes are potentially going unreported.

Not everyone has the option of going online to report a crime which appears to be the only effective way of doing so today.

Richard Hunt
Richard Hunt

As it is, the number of 101 calls in falling - from 374,689 in the year ending April 2021 to 360,181 in the year to this April.

So, is crime falling, or are people simply giving up?

In his report to the Police Performance and Delivery Board last month, the Chief Constable admitted that 55% of all calls to 101 made in July had gone unanswered.

Kent Police say they are suffering staffing problems in the control room and that they must prioritise emergency calls first.

The Kent Police and Crime Commissioner's office is well aware of the slowness of the police response.

Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Mathew Scott
Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Mathew Scott

The commissioner Matthew Scott said: "We are desperately trying to change it. 101 has got to improve."

Kent Police is not the only force struggling with its 101 response.

Devon and Cornwall’s police and crime commissioner has announced an urgent review into his force's response to non-emergency 101 calls, after noting that the average waiting time in the 12-months to July had risen to 20 minutes.

In Staffordshire, the police force has recently introduced a triage system for answering 101 calls in a bid to cut waiting time. Calls are answered to assess whether they should really be 999 calls, or can be reported online, or should wait for a call-taker. But critics have said that just means you get through to a person quicker initially and are then put on hold.

Matthew Scott, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Kent, is tasked with overseeing police performance.

He said: "The 101 service has been consistently bad. There was one weekend recently when there was a national problem with 101. BT was concerned that there were higher levels of waiting time for everybody, but that doesn't excuse the fact that we do badly.

"That was one weekend and there are 51 other weekends in the year.

The Kent Police control room is currently based at the HQ in Sutton Road, but is due to move to Coldharbour in Aylesford next year
The Kent Police control room is currently based at the HQ in Sutton Road, but is due to move to Coldharbour in Aylesford next year

"The challenges that Kent has with 101 are not unique. There are other forces having difficulty, Sussex for example.

"But I've been very clear with the Chief Constable that we need to see improvement in 101.

"We have seen some improvement where they have pump-primed resource into the control room. They have brought in extra staff. Staff have been offering extended contracts and overtime to try and get resources."

Mr Scott said: "While that did have some impact, there is a more fundamental issue that needs to be addressed to make sure that we have people in there at the right time.

"While these short-term measures have been taking place over the last few weeks and months, they haven't made sufficient difference.

"A longer term plan is being drawn up now by the Assistant Chief Constable. Once he's finalised that report at the end of this week, he will bring it to me and the Chief Constable to look at the longer term issues we have.

"We can't escape from the fact that we have a high vacancy rate in the control room which is impacting on our capabilities. We need to address the fact that we have staff with skills very attractive to the private sector who can offer more money and more sociable hours.

"That has been a considerable challenge. We have a far higher vacancy rate in our control room than we do across the rest of the organisation. But we are recruiting. There is a new class of 26 currently in there. Another class in progress, that's another 20, and another class of 22 planned before the end of the year."

The force is trying to recruit more staff
The force is trying to recruit more staff

He said: "We're doing everything we can to fill the vacancies, meet the demand and resource it properly."

Mr Scott said: "It's not going to be an overnight fix. It's going to take some time for these results to filter through.

"What is important is that the problem is not being ignored."

Mr Scott said: "The easy answer from a lot of organisations would be to say 'Well, we can't answer the phones, so we are just going to go online.'

"That's not acceptable."

Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott with former Chief Constable Alan Pughsley
Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott with former Chief Constable Alan Pughsley

He said: "We are going to keep the telephone service and I'll make it absolutely clear that whoever the next Chief Constable is, it will my top priority and his, because 101 is just not acceptable at the moment."

Mr Scott was referring to the fact that Kent's Chief Constable for the past eight years, Alan Pughsley, has just resigned to take up a new national policing post. Kent Police is currently in the hands of a temporary Chief Constable, Tim Smith, while a new figure is recruited.

We asked Mr Scott whether he had listened to the new 101 automated message which did indeed suggest callers needed to go online.

He said: "Well, we need to improve that message. We shouldn't be diverting people away from the phone if they need it.

"We have online options for a reason and they are well used. People are making thousands of online reports and thousands of live chats - they are perfectly valid options, but they are options. They are not compulsory and we should always have a 101 service."

Temporary Chief Constable Tim Smith
Temporary Chief Constable Tim Smith

Mr Scott said: "We've turned this around before and I'm confident we can turn it around again."

"I inherited problems with 101. We fixed them and then post-pandemic we seem to have ended back there again.

"But I'm absolutely confident we can turn it around and get people the service they deserve on the telephone and not just online."

Asked how come a chat message could be responded to in two minutes, and 101 call perhaps never. Mr Scott said: "Because they can deal with multiple chats at the same time.

"The telephone response always gives priority to 999 calls over 101."

'We have 27% of rape victims report via 101'

Mr Scott said: "I've used the chat service myself and it's really good, but I accept that it's not suitable for everybody."

He said: "If you are wanting to talk to the police and don't want to chat you should be able to phone 101. Chat is absolutely a good thing to have, but it shouldn't be the only thing.

"Still not everybody is online and in certain situations people may not feel confident to report online.

"If you are trying to talk about anti-social behaviour, or you have been burgled or you are trying to report some other issue, you don't want to be battling with the website, you just want to talk to a human being - that's why 101 should never be taken away.

"And it's never going to be taken away, but that's why it needs to be good. So that people can go through those questions with a human being."

Matthew Scott: I want people to say: 'I will bother'
Matthew Scott: I want people to say: 'I will bother'

Revealing some astonishing figures, Mr Scott said: "We have 27% of rape victims report via 101. A third of sexual violence victims report by 101, and 51% of stalking and harassment victims report by 101 - that's why it is so important.

"There is so much at risk if we don't get this right."

Mr Scott was reminded that in July 55% of 101 calls went answered, meaning potentially many crimes - including the serious ones he had just listed - went unrecorded.

He said: "We did see an uptake in 999 calls as a result.

"What we do map is when people hang up. Sometimes people hang up because they've heard the online message and they go and do an online form. Sometimes they do the live chat. But if they need to report a crime and can't get through on 101, they often dial 999 instead."

'I don't want anyone to think that the police don't care'

He said: "Some people are re-presenting in this way, but my worry is that customer confidence in policing gets knocked because they can't report their call.

"They just say - and I've heard this said and it really bugs me - people say, why bother?

"I don't want anyone to think that the police don't care.

"We want people to report intelligence and information to the police.

"And I want a 101 service that make people think: 'Actually that's been really quick and really easy, I will bother.'"

Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Vaughan Lukey
Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Vaughan Lukey

The temporary Assistant Chief Constable, Vaughan Lukey, said: "Every contact we receive at Kent Police is important to us, whether by telephone or other means, and we are committed to protecting the most vulnerable members of our communities and keeping them safe from harm.

"This year, up until the end of September, we had received over half a million calls, half of which were 999 emergencies and while we will always prioritise emergency situations, we do not underestimate how frustrating it might be for someone who wants to get in contact with us via the non-emergency number and has to wait for any length of time.

"We are now seeing more and more people contacting us online, which is something that we introduced to improve our service and since the beginning of this year, we have been contacted online on almost 90,000 occasions.

"Half of this contact has been through our online live chat function, which connects people instantly to a member of staff with no need to wait on hold. There are other ways too, like completing an online crime report at your own pace or using one of the many forms we have created on our website that allows you to get your message to the right team.

"It goes without saying that everyone should use 999 in an emergency situation but for non-emergencies we do encourage you to contact us on our website." www.kent.police.uk/report

Kent Police is advertising for staff: the starting salary is £23,541 for 37 hours shift work including nights and weekends
Kent Police is advertising for staff: the starting salary is £23,541 for 37 hours shift work including nights and weekends

Mr Lukey said: "However, we do appreciate there may still be some people who don’t have easy access to online services and that’s why we continue to seek to answer every 101 call as quickly as possible and provide the best service we can.

"We are currently recruiting in our Force Control Room, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and would like to hear from anyone who wants to be part of the team that plays such a vital role in frontline policing.

Kent Police is attempting to recruit more call-handlers.

There is a "recruitment engagement event" on Tuesday, November 15, between 6pm and 8pm at the force headquarters in Sutton Road. Maidstone. Visitors will be given a tour of the control and have the job explained before being invited to make an application.

To learn more visit here.

The starting salary for the "exciting and rewarding career" is £23,802 for a 37 hour week, working a shift pattern that includes nights and weekends. Other shift lengths are available.

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