Some victims of domestic violence and other serious crimes have to wait days to be seen by police officers because 999 calls are not getting a prompt response, a report has found.
The Inspectorate of Constabulary said a quarter of forces in England and Wales were often “overwhelmed” by demand.
The annual review found instances of police taking days to respond to calls that should be acted on within an hour.
Police chiefs said increases in demand had put policing under “real strain”.
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Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services’ (HMICFRS) annual assessment of police effectiveness said most police forces were doing a good job and keeping the public safe.
However, the report said it was concerned that vulnerable victims were “too often” not getting a prompt emergency response.
Thousands of 999 calls assessed as requiring action within 60 minutes were not dealt with for hours or, in some cases, for several days – mainly because officers were not available to respond.
In Cambridgeshire, for example, inspectors found the average time it took for police to respond to a 999 call during September last year was 15 hours.
Victims ‘at risk’
Inspectors said they were concerned by the findings because it showed the system was “under severe strain and in some forces the cracks are showing”.
Zoe Billingham, the Inspector of Constabulary, told Radio 4’s Today programme that some callers, such as domestic abuse victims, were being “put at risk”.
But she said the report needed to be put into context, highlighting last year’s terror attacks and a significant increase in calls from victims of domestic abuse as factors in a “massive increase in demand” on forces.
Out of 43 police forces, only Durham Constabulary was ranked as outstanding.
It found that “life and limb” and “crime in action” cases were generally dealt with quickly.
But the report criticised the standard of investigations into crimes such as robbery, burglary, car theft and assault.
It said officers frequently failed to carry out house-to-house enquiries, gather CCTV evidence and use their body-worn cameras.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council said it was working with forces to boost their detective numbers and specialist capability to help them manage and reduce demand.