One of the country’s policing leaders has warned the police service is “heading towards a cliff edge” unless forces are properly funded.
Bedfordshire Chief Constable Jon Boutcher said the situation was rapidly “becoming unsustainable”, as his force, like many others, struggles to combat a surge in violent crime.
Sky News was granted unrestricted access to follow the work of Bedfordshire’s officers and staff, as the force grapples with under resourced departments and record demand for its services.
In more than a week with the force, we followed front line units as they dealt with several violent incidents.
Armed officers were called to support their unarmed colleagues at a stabbing incident in Luton late on a Friday night.
One young man was taken into custody, while another sustained a knife injury to his arm and required hospital treatment.
More than 20 armed and unarmed officers attended that call, a resource intensive, but common response to violent incidents across Bedfordshire.
Mr Boutcher said his force loses out on current government finance arrangements.
Bedfordshire is funded as a small rural force, despite the fact it suffers from many of the problems of larger metropolitan areas, including high levels of knife, gun and drugs offences.
“I genuinely believe that we’ve reached a tipping point now in British policing and if we don’t get this right now, it might be too late,” Mr Boutcher said.
“Everything at the moment, morning, noon and night is Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.
“While we’re trying to focus on that, which we need to, right under our noses with our public services, we are walking towards a crisis and we have got to make sure we address it.
“And the police service especially, at this moment in time, is walking towards a cliff edge. People are aware of it. We’ve now got to start doing something about it.”
Over the seven days Sky News was embedded with the Bedfordshire force, more than 30 officers were involved in a protracted investigation to find a missing vulnerable three-year-old boy.
Officers from Bedfordshire’s Child Abuse and Vulnerable Adult Abuse (CAVAA) unit led the investigation, but other officers had to be drafted in to support the efforts to locate the child, who was eventually found safe and well.
Detective Chief Inspector Emma James, the CAVAA unit’s lead officer, said: “It is causing a strain because it’s so resource intensive in relation to conducting so many different inquiries in order to find this missing child.
“This is in addition to managing our daily workload. For example, we’ve got 18 live investigations per officer. They range from child offences, to vulnerable adult offences.
“For example, on any given day you could be dealing with a fraud against a vulnerable adult, or you could be dealing with a shaken baby, a baby that has suffered broken bones, or even a child death. So having to deal with this, it does take away from managing other investigations.”
Bedfordshire, which currently has an annual budget of just over £105m, has had to make more than £37m in cuts since 2010.
The force estimates it will still have to find another £14m in savings over the next four years.
Mr Boutcher said demand for the service has reached recorded levels, with much of that driven by safeguarding issues.
As well as a huge increase in missing persons investigations, a significant proportion of the day-to-day caseload of officers centres on people with mental health problems.
Mr Boutcher said cuts elsewhere in the public sector meant his officers were often seen as the social workers of last resort.
“There is a reality that the people that will always get called, when there’s nowhere else to go, will be the police service,” he said.
Sky News accompanied officers on several calls where safeguarding was a key component of the incidents.
In a quiet residential street in Luton, officers responded to reports that a man was allegedly threatening members of his family with a kitchen knife.
The 999 operator told the officers the man, who was also threatening to slash his own throat, was believed to have mental health problems.
Although officers were authorised to deploy Taser stun guns if the situation deteriorated, they managed to calm the man down and resolve the situation, before being called off to yet another emergency on a busy weekend night in Luton.
The increase in demand around safeguarding issues is putting a huge strain on Bedfordshire force control room.
Mr Boutcher said: “We’ve seen our 999 calls, in what is a small rurally funded county, go from, in the late 200s a couple of years ago, to last year being around about 350 a day.
“This year, that number has regularly gone over 550 calls a day and exceeded 600 calls a day.”
On the week Sky News filmed at Bedfordshire police, the control room was forced to suspend its 101 non-emergency telephone number for a while because of a massive surge in demand and a lack of resources.
Bedfordshire’s senior management are regularly forced to supplement under resourced departments with officers from other units, but say the process is putting huge strain on the organisation as a whole.
Recently, the force’s serious and organised crime unit, which deals with high-end criminality in Bedfordshire, was forced to suspend investigations for a while and reassign detectives to help deal with a backlog a domestic violence cases.
Detective Inspector Justin Dipper, who leads the serious and organised crime department said: “It is frustrating but you have to look at what the need of the organisation is.
“If you’ve got people that have been assaulted and are living in corrosive environments, children being brought up in corrosive environments, it’s absolutely right that we put our focus there.
“The problem is, if we only put our focus there, then we’re not focussing on the people that are supplying the drugs that leads to drug addiction, which leads to people burglarising homes.
“We’re not tackling the people that are manufacturing and converting firearms which end up in the hands of our young people involved in gang violence and firearms discharges.”
The Home Office has announced that Bedfordshire has been granted a one off payment of £4.6m to help combat organised crime and gang violence.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid approved the special grant application from Bedfordshire police and crime commissioner Kathryn Holloway.
The additional funding will support the force to disrupt gang activity in and around towns in the force area.
This gang activity includes high-harm crimes, such as gun violence, county lines drug operations, and child sexual exploitation and abuse.
Policing minister Nick Hurd said: “We are determined to crack down on serious violence and gang activity, which threaten the fabric of our communities.
“This funding will help Bedfordshire Police in their operations to dismantle criminal gangs and protect the public.