Blog: Police officers want to help – but they are not medics

08 November 2018

Operational Lead Simon Kempton

Operational Lead Simon Kempton

Federation Operational Policing Lead Simon Kempton warns of ‘mission creep’ as police officers are pressured into taking on greater responsibility

In theory, it sounds like a great idea – ask officers to carry medical kit so they can literally be prepared for anything. Some police cars, usually Armed Response Vehicles (ARVS), already carry defibrillators to be used in the case of a suspected cardiac arrest.

The idea is that officers can attempt to save a life if they arrive before the ambulance.

In the States they take this principle a step further by requiring all firefighters to be qualified EMTs or ‘emergency medical technicians’, as they are often the first responders in any crisis.

So far, so good, and common sense, you might think.

But where we are in danger of upping the risk stakes, is by borrowing another US idea, namely supplying officers with a drug antidote to treat a suspected overdose. Narcan, to use its brand name (it’s called Naloxone over here), is routinely issued to US police officers on patrol and has been credited with saving several lives.

But unlike those defibrillators (and I’ll come back to those later) there is a bigger risk at play; an addict injected with Naloxone revives very quickly and while it is a relatively safe drug to administer,  in rare occasions it can have severe side effects – there is a possibility that people may turn violent because they are disorientated.

Some forces are using Naloxone in a custody environment, and I’ve no issue with this where it can be used safely by custody nurses.

For police officers – who get an initial four hours first aid training then a day’s refresher every three years – it’s just not possible to always accurately and safely diagnose whether someone is unresponsive because they have taken an overdose.

What happens if they are in a diabetic coma instead? The officer has failed to recognise this, delivers the antidote anyway and ends up, paradoxically, causing more harm than good, or worse? (Of course if we are training to administer drugs to deal with a heroin overdose, why are we not training to deal with other issues which are prevalent, such as mental health first aid which officers would use on a daily basis?)

Taking this a step further, we could also see police officers being routinely issued with other clinical treatments, like asthma inhalers, EpiPens and angina sprays.

In my mind, this would be mission creep at its worst; of course an officer’s primary duty is to save life but our primary role is to prevent and detect crime, and we cannot do both…. we should be leaving medical emergencies to those who are appropriately qualified whenever possible.

Otherwise we risk patients being misdiagnosed by ill-trained officers leading to possibly fatal consequences - and the likelihood of a death by police contact misconduct hearing. And as we know, police officers are often dealt with in a punitive way rather than a culture of learning after something has gone wrong.

In this country, ARVs are being called out when there is no ambulance available; like the police service, the ambulance service is hideously over-stretched and operating at beyond breaking point.

But the answer most definitely is not to supply every officer with a doctor’s bag full of medical tricks.

Police officers want to help wherever possible but we have to recognise that when an ARV attends a medical emergency, it is not available for a firearms job.

Proper solutions demand sensible conversations; one force already has a really strong Service Level Agreement with the local ambulance service: officers are still being called out to medical emergencies but asking the ambulance service to keep the call at the top of their priority list and not be downgraded.

This is a great example of playing to each service’s strengths, assessing local needs and looking at all the resources available.

It’s not that saving lives isn’t important; it’s about ensuring the right people are in place to save lives at the right time. Because while we are out there saving those extra lives, as noble as it is, we are not catching burglars or foiling the latest terrorist plot.

As the Federation has been saying for years, and as recognised by the Home Affairs Select committee in its hard-hitting Policing for the Future report last month, an absolute key priority is to improve partnership working with other public services and agencies by pooling resources and setting out clear roles, responsibilities and where possible, relevant protocols.

There is no substitute for proper medical training - the solution must be to properly fund all of our emergency services so that we can all undertake our primary roles properly.