BIRMINGHAM, England — On a foggy afternoon last fall, a suicidal patient walked out of Solihull Hospital and disappeared. Alerted by hospital staff, police officers discovered her on a Birmingham street, having downed a bottle of vodka.
They took her to their station house, waited for her to sober up and called social service agencies and charities for help. Their calls were rebuffed or never answered.
At midnight, Constable Richard Chant finally persuaded the woman to go to a different hospital, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. In the eight hours that officers worked on her case, the West Midlands Police Department received 1,452 other emergency calls, and in many of those cases, hours or days went by before an officer responded.
“It was a bit of checkmate,” Constable Chant said. “We need to support these people in crisis, but the police are not the right ones to be dealing with them.”
Constable Chant’s burden reflects the strained state of policing in Britain’s era of economic austerity: The number and range of emergency calls has risen sharply in Birmingham and in many other cities, but there are now far fewer officers to respond. The economic uncertainties around Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union mean that budget pressures could be far from over.
The West Midlands Police has seen $220 million in budget cuts since the Conservative-led government’s austerity program began in 2010. The department has slashed a quarter of its officers, leaving numbers nearly as low as when the force was formed in 1974. Across England and Wales, police staffing has fallen by about 20,000 officers.
The problem is compounded by parallel cuts to social services. Addiction services, housing benefits, gang mediation programs and social services for both adults and children have all been pared back, creating metastasizing problems that often fall to the police.
There are also questions about whether the cuts are contributing to a spike in violent crime. Murders and robberies, while not near American crime rates, have surged to their highest levels in a decade in England and Wales. Knife offenses rose in 2018 for the fourth straight year, and crimes involving firearms dipped after rising for several years.
Since the mid-1990s, Britain has registered a marked decline in violent crime, national crime surveys show, and it is too soon to know if the recent uptick is an anomaly or a trend. But much of the recent debate has focused nonetheless on the impact of austerity — particularly on how crime calls are going unanswered as officers work to plug holes in the country’s safety net.
“If you’re putting your faith in the police to sort out these problems, you’re really firing a sort of pea shooter at something that’s a cannon-sized problem,” said Richard Garside, the director of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies in London.
Hours devoted to health and welfare calls leave less time to collect evidence and solve crimes. As a result, victims who are not in immediate danger routinely wait days for a police interview. Officers say they have essentially given up investigating property crimes, dropping burglary complaints unless the homeowners can find a fingerprint or provide surveillance video.
Police spending ballooned in the early 2000s under a Labour government, which gave officers a broad charge to clamp down on small-scale misbehavior and impose order in accordance with the “broken windows” theory of policing that was then much in vogue. No longer.
“It was all right, the police being the jack-of-all-trades, when there was a necessary amount of funding for the police,” Constable Chant said. “But if you’ve got 20,000 less police officers, less funding, then somebody needs to make the decision about what they want us to do.”
A Tattered Safety Net
Two hours north of London by train, the West Midlands contains former factory towns and cities that were once the industrial heart of England. It is now among the poorest regions in Britain.
Last summer, as the West Midlands Police confronted a backlog of more than 2,000 unanswered complaints, the department’s leader, Chief Constable Dave Thompson, went on patrol himself. One woman had filed a complaint about her brother slashing her tires but was more worried about his mental health than the vandalism.
“They’d tried the doctor and got nothing; they’d tried a community mental health team and they got nothing,” Chief Constable Thompson said. “I can’t solve this for them, but increasingly, we see calls coming through to the police like that because we’re here 24 hours a day.”
On a different afternoon, Inspector Lucy Bird fielded emergency calls in the West Midlands Police dispatch room, her radio crackling with what she called “mispers,” police slang for reports of missing people, many of them mentally ill.
One call involved a mentally ill woman who had stolen lighter fluid and was threatening to burn down a grocery store and set herself on fire. Another call about a man who had gone missing before getting his psychiatric medication set off an intense police search.
“A good proportion of our jobs on a daily basis are mental health,” Inspector Bird said.
In recent decades, the rate of diagnoses of severe mental illness has climbed in England while services have been reduced. In turn, officers in England and Wales detained 60 percent more people for psychiatric reasons in 2015-16 than they did a decade earlier. The police in London now receive a call related to mental illness about once every four minutes.
Prime Minister Theresa May has said that health care has been protected from austerity cuts. But mental health trusts were given $134 million less to spend on patient care in 2017, accounting for inflation, compared with five years earlier, the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported. And last year, the Care Quality Commission, a health care regulator, concluded that more than a third of mental health trusts in England were rated as needing to improve patient safety.
Since the 1980s, tens of thousands of psychiatric beds have been cut, initially as part of a policy shift to caring for the mentally ill in the community rather than in hospitals. Under austerity, those reductions have continued.
In November, a government inspector found that “other organizations rely on the police to effectively ‘pick up the pieces’ after they have gone off duty.” Even small cuts in social services can mean heavier workloads for police officers.
Michael Brown, an inspector in the West Midlands force, is now assigned to study mental health for the national College of Policing. The mental health crisis team in his old patrol area once had two nurses who responded to calls from people who said they were unwell.
By 2014, Inspector Brown said, the team had been halved, and government policy prohibited the nurse who remained from making calls alone for safety reasons.
Many of those calls were rerouted to the police.
An Increase in Homicides
Inside a police station that closed to the public three years ago, Inspector Warren Hines, a homicide detective, was confronted with a resource crisis. There were more than 50 homicides last year in the West Midlands, roughly twice as many as in 2014, yet he has fewer investigators than ever. Robberies or assaults are supposed to get attention within an hour if the offender has left, yet they can go unanswered for days.
On the streets, officers are racing between emergency calls and have less time to patrol a beat. Regular patrols may do little to deter crime, but Inspector Hines said they often provided intelligence essential to his investigations. Officers who used to wait in hot spots for drug dealing or violence now spend more time answering calls.
“There was a time when we’d have a pretty good idea of who would be dealing drugs, we’d have a pretty good idea where a lot of the stolen property was being disposed of,” said Inspector Hines, who is also a representative of West Midlands Police Federation, which advocates for officers. “And now we just don’t know.”
At the end of May, Inspector Hines was canvassing for witnesses to the killing of a 15-year-old boy. He came upon a taxi driver who, if not likely to be a crucial witness, still could have helped describe the scene. But the man declined to help, saying the police had failed to help him after he reported three robberies.
“He said, ‘I don’t really see it’s my job to help you,’ ” Inspector Hines said.
Part of what has slowed response times has been the closing of local police stations and the consolidation of response teams that began in the early years of austerity. Only 10 stations in the West Midlands now have a public counter, down from 48 in 2010, and 14 local stations have been shut completely.
Sgt. Richard Cooke, the chairman of the West Midlands Police Federation, remembered an assault case in Walsall, an industrial town northwest of Birmingham. A woman called the emergency number to say that her son, who had a history of drug abuse, was trying to kick in her door.
The nearest officers were in Wolverhampton, about 10 miles away. By the time they arrived, the woman had been attacked and her son had fled.
“That’s happening on a regular basis,” Sergeant Cooke said.
‘Their Gang Is Bigger Than Our Gang’
For many police departments, as well as for Britain’s still influential tabloids, the answer to the deteriorating service seems simple: more officers. Patterns of taxi robberies and home break-ins are being missed because so many cases are shelved without so much as a cursory investigation, they say. Victims stop calling the police. Criminals are emboldened.
“When the criminals realize that their gang is bigger than our gang,” Constable Chant said, “they start exploiting that.”
Much of the blame has fallen on Mrs. May, the architect of the cuts as home secretary from 2010 to 2016. Even as she negotiates Britain’s tortured withdrawal from the European Union, she faces the daily ire of officers who have not forgiven her for past crackdowns on corruption in officer associations and on stop-and-frisk tactics, or for the personnel cutbacks.
“We think she’s got it in for us,” Sergeant Cooke said.
But others say Britain should restore funding for social services rather than expand police forces that are poorly equipped to address a mental health crisis.
In mid-December, Mrs. May’s government announced an additional $1.2 billion for the police. Police leaders were quick to lament that much of it would be absorbed by the forces’ growing pension obligations, rather than adding more officers.
Kirk Dawes, a former West Midlands police officer, retired from the force and started a mediation program for Birmingham, the site of vicious feuds between gangs like the Burger Bar Boys and Johnson Crew.
Having studied gang mediation tactics in New Jersey and in Northern Ireland, he took referrals from the police when someone was attacked or when investigators caught wind of a threat to someone’s life.
With roughly 100 cases a year in the early 2000s, the mediation team had only one person killed on its watch. The team had an annual budget of roughly $440,000, and Mr. Dawes figures it saved the government millions of dollars in costly homicide investigations. But under austerity, the program’s budget was sharply reduced, until it folded in 2012.
By last fall, more than a third of the homicides being investigated by West Midlands detectives were the sort of killings that Mr. Dawes’s team might once have worked to prevent.
“All of that was lost,” he said.