Alcohol use is strongly associated with crime and violence. In 2017/18, nearly half a million violent crimes were committed under the influence of alcohol in England and Wales, making up 39% of all violent offences. In this blog Mick Urwin, a retired police officer with 30 years of police service, writes about how alcohol use impacted his work and the crimes he investigated.
“It was the drink.”
The four words I invariably heard from those released from police custody after a night in a cell. They may have been arrested for sexual assault (usually inappropriately touching a young woman at a bar), fighting with door staff after being ejected from a pub or club, assaulting police officers when resisting arrest, or hurling foulmouthed abuse at anyone nearby.
That was a normal Friday or Saturday night’s work for me as a police officer.
For the first 20 years of my policing career, I was mainly 24/7 response. Alcohol featured in many of the incidents I dealt with; almost daily. Looking back, the problem was that as a police officer I became desensitised to alcohol.
My first ever arrest as Probationer Constable was a young female shoplifter who was drunk. Back then, you concentrated on the offence committed, not the possible cause. This young lady was trapped in a revolving door of offending, custody, and re-offending. Now, that pattern of re-offending and alcohol issues would be addressed, but at that time it wasn’t considered.
I still vividly remember many of the other alcohol-related incidents I dealt with in my career.
The partners beaten black and blue during an alcohol-fuelled domestic assault. The victims also turning to alcohol for escape or to dull the pain of the expected punches.
The fear on the faces of young children when their father was being restrained by myself and three other officers on the living room floor because he was being so violent and resisting arrest after an alcohol-fuelled domestic assault.
The look of anguish on the face of a mother who had to stand by and watch as I took both her children into police protection as she had spiralled into alcohol dependency which had led to her neglecting her children. As a father myself, that was one of the worst jobs I ever had to do.
The knock on a door to tell parents their son had been involved in a car accident and had been killed. The explanation that the driver responsible was over the drink drive limit.
These weren’t isolated incidents. They happened with all too much regularity, and are being dealt with by police officers out there, right now. And that is before I even touch on what it is like to police city centres at the weekend in what is called the night-time economy.
Starting a night-shift on a Friday or Saturday night I always knew exactly what to expect.
We’d hear shouts from drunk men and women such as: “I pay your wages!” or “Here comes the stripper!”
I’d be asked for my police helmet as “You are allowed to pee in it” – that old wives’ tale of a pregnant woman being able to urinate in a policeman’s helmet. It’s a myth by the way, if you are thinking of trying it!
Policing the night-time economy was not a pleasant tour of duty, and I ended up in A&E on several occasions myself after being assaulted while arresting offenders affected by alcohol. I accepted it was part of the job and dismissed the fact alcohol was involved. The fact someone was drunk when they offended almost became a mitigating factor, whereas it is, most certainly, an aggravating one.
After 20 years of 24/7 response policing, I took on a role that opened my eyes to alcohol and the harm it can cause. I became the first Alcohol Harm Reduction Officer, a unique role created by a forward thinking Superintendent who recognised the impact alcohol was having on policing. My work in that role was driven by the incidents I had dealt with.
The most basic Peelian principle for policing is – “To Prevent Crime & Disorder”. My alcohol harm reduction work was about being proactive, getting up stream and preventing problems from starting rather than reacting to them. I’ve always attributed this quote to alcohol harm reduction:
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” – Desmond Tutu
Unfortunately, those words became all too real when several university students lost their lives in rivers after excessive drinking. Such loss of young lives was tragic and trying to overcome a culture of excessive student drinking was one of the most difficult I faced.
Policing must place alcohol as a standalone priority. Too often you see ‘Alcohol and Drugs’- but alcohol gets lost in the noise of other drugs such as heroin or cocaine. Alcohol is a unique drug in that it is socially acceptable, yet it is the most addictive and destructive drug we have. It heavily impacts on individuals and communities and reaches across the policing spectrum; from the most minor incidents of anti-social behaviour to homicide.
Reducing alcohol harm comes down to these three words: availability, affordability and advertising. To have any impact on reducing the harms caused by alcohol we need to address all three, making alcohol – less available, less affordable and less advertised.
Over the last 18 months the COVID-19 pandemic has consumed our lives. We are seeing the impact that alcohol has had; with a record high of alcohol related deaths in 2020, a 70% increase in the number of calls to the British Liver Trust helpline, and an increase in drinking at home, which will have negatively affected victims of domestic violence, and created new ones.
Now more than ever the Government must play its part. It must stop the deference to the alcohol industry and produce a national alcohol strategy, which is strong, bold and evidenced-based in order to tackle alcohol harm. Without national leadership and direction, police officers will continue to bear the brunt of dealing with alcohol harm and its related crimes.
Written by Mick Urwin
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.