Lack of NHS Facilities Cause Police to Hold Thousands of Mentally Ill People in Police Custody

Last week (6 Feb 2015) a Home Affairs Committee Report identified that about 6,000 adults and 200 children with mental health issues were detained in police cells last year alone.

The reason why they stayed in police custody for all that time was that there was nowhere in the mental health system to move them to. There is a shortage of space in NHS hospitals and the police are filling the gap.

If a police officer finds a person who appears to be suffering from a mental disorder and who is in need of immediate care or control the officer may, if he thinks it’s necessary, remove that person to a place of safety. At the place of safety he or she will be assessed by a medical practitioner and an approved mental health social worker with a view to making necessary arrangements for his/her treatment or care. That person can be held for up to 72 hours and that place of safety can be police cells.

This authority comes from s136 of the Mental Health Act. The person does not need to have committed a criminal offence.

The report asks that police cells are no longer regarded as “places of safety” and asks for change in the law. Holding the mentally ill especially children in custody can have traumatic effects on these people who are already ill. Concerns have also been raised that this can introduce the young and the vulnerable to a life of crime.

The report also found:

  • “Too many” NHS clinical commissioning groups are failing in their duty to provide enough hospital “places of safety” that are available 24 hours a day
  • There is a “clear failure” of NHS clinical commissioning groups to provide for children with mental-health issues. The NHS needs to make places available locally
  • Taking people experiencing a mental health crisis to hospital in a police car was “shameful and in many cases added to the distress” and an ambulance should be used
  • The police need to make sure they use their powers in relation to mental health correctly, to reduce the numbers detained

The Government’s response was that the numbers for 2013/2014 had already fallen by 22%. A police federation spokesman said that as you would not expect a doctor to run a police investigation, police officers should not be an adequate replacement for medical staff.

Vicky Price of Price Slater Gawne added “these powers are supposed to be emergency powers only. The police are not equipped to look after these people who are ill; most likely very frightened, confused and disorientated. They are unlikely to have access to their medication. They may well be behaving unusually and need a lot of attention or surveillance. This is difficult for the police as well. These people are poorly. Police cells are not the place for them.

Some counties in the UK do have units for emergency mental health admissions and the police can take these patients to them straight away. My clients have told me that they have been able to recover much faster when they go to these units first rather than waiting, scared and unwell, in police cells. They have had access to treatment from mental health specialists straight away. Mental health care needs massive investment.”

The read more about the report on the Parliamentary website click here