Police take action to stem ill-effects of the pounds 250m `golden backa che'

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IT HAS long been a part of police folklore that just as the Mountie always gets his man, so the Liverpool copper always gets his "golden backache".

The drain on the Merseyside police budget from ill-health, retirement, or long-term convalescence has for years been the talk of other forces.

Research carried out in 1996 showed that the average Merseyside officer was taking 21 days off sick a year, the equivalent of pounds 12m in lost policing resources.

Across England and Wales, police sickness is costing up to pounds 250m a year and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has threatened chief constables with budget restrictions if they fail to address the "ridiculous" problem.

In four forces, Derbyshire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Avon and Somerset, more than 50 per cent of all retirements are on medical grounds.

In Merseyside, senior officers determined on drastic action with the result that a radical programme has been instituted aimed at transforming the traditional police culture to a modern, healthier alternative.

As part of the "healthy force initiative", officers are given time off during the working day to go jogging and healthy eating options appear alongside the traditional sausage and chips on the canteen menu.

Jan Pakola, the force's head of policy and procedures, said: "This is a culture shift. By providing these things we hope to change the way people eat and live." The force is also being proactive in helping sick officers back to work, in some cases paying medical bills to circumvent long waiting lists.

The initiative is already producing stunning results. In the space of a year, the equivalent of pounds 4.5m has been saved in time off, enough money to put 163 officers in post.

It has not been easy. Worn down by the stresses of policing in one of Britain's most dangerous urban areas, some officers inevitably dream of an easy way out.

At last month's trial of Elmore Davies, the corrupt deputy head of the Merseyside drugs squad who was convicted of perverting the course of justice, the jury was told that he was looking forward to using a back "injury" to allow him to retire "on a nice pension - pounds 500 a week in my hand just for sitting on my extremely fat arse".

In taped conversations, he boasted of plans to work as a security consultant on cruise liners - another "pounds 500 a week and all your keep and ale".

While Davies was clearly criminal, other officers would also have seen retirement as an attractive financial proposition. For those suffering injury as well as ill-health, retirement after 22.5 years' service guarantees a 30-year index-free pension for officers who may have just turned 40.

With 169 officers retiring on health grounds in 1996-97, the force realised the need to take an increasingly robust approach in dealing with claims, calling in independent medical consultants to assess whether injuries are genuine.

But wherever possible officers have been encouraged to feel "part of the team" and asked to come back to work and undertake "light duties".

Thus, officers with broken legs may work in a deskbound crime intelligence post instead of going out on patrol.

Paul Robinson, the force's director of human resources, said: "We have now got individuals who feel more valued and they are less inclined than they would have been to extend periods of sickness."

Last year, retirements on health grounds fell by more than half to 83. The new buzz words of the force are "open, honest, caring, participative". In the canteen, healthy "life force" meals are marked with a red heart and a daily vegetarian option is also offered.

This new caring approach even extends to a new drugs and alcohol programme, where the emphasis is not on weeding out substance-abusing officers for arrest or dismissal but on helping them return to a more healthy lifestyle.

Those identified as having a drink problem might be offered a place on a rehabilitation programme, with the force footing part of the bill.

Compulsory drugs screening will be introduced by stages. The scheme will start next month, targeting new recruits. It will then be extended to those working in sensitive areas, such as firearms units and divers, and those applying for promotion. Finally the force will bring in compulsory random testing of all staff. But the force says the programme is "supportive rather than punitive".

The Crown Prosecution Service does not believe it is in the public interest to prosecute for "possession" when drugs only exist in the individual's blood or urine.

Therefore, Merseyside police does not feel obliged to take disciplinary action against members of staff found to have been using even Class A drugs.

Damian Morley, welfare manager, explained: "We have invested a lot of money in people in terms of their training and their ability to do the job. We cannot just go to the employment exchange and ask for five new police officers.

"It takes years to train people and it would be wasteful of public money to just dismiss people out of hand because they have problems."