Twice As Many Mentally Ill People End Up In Police Custody

Twice as many people are detained in unsuitable police custody for assessment under the Mental Health Act as those taken by the police to hospital for this purpose, according to research published by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) today.

During a one year period (2005/06) over 11,500 people were detained in a police cell as a place of safety under section 136 of the Mental Health Act. In the same period 5,900 people were taken to and detained in a hospital.

The IPCC's report, 'Police Custody as a "Place of Safety": a National Study Examining the Use of Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983', examines the nature and extent of the use of police custody as a place of safety across England and Wales. It is the first time national data on the use of section 136 by all 43 police forces has been collated. The report makes a number of recommendations for the police and health services to improve practice and the experiences of the many thousands of people detained by the police under this power.

Under section 136, police officers can detain people, believed to have a mental disorder, who are in a public place and take them to a place of safety such as a hospital or police station for assessment.

Ian Bynoe, IPCC Commissioner with national responsibility for mental health, said: "Someone whose distress or strange behaviour causes the police concern needs rapid medical and social assessment in a safe environment. It is therefore intolerable that even though it has been Government policy since 1990 that a hospital is the preferred place of safety for such an assessment our research shows that twice as many people are detained in police custody as in a more fitting hospital environment.

"Police custody is an unsuitable environment for someone with mental illness and may make their condition worse, particularly if they are not dealt with quickly, appropriately and don’t receive the care they need. The continued use of cells not only diverts police resources from fighting crime, but criminalises behaviour which is not a crime. A police cell should only be used when absolutely necessary, for example when someone is violent, and not as a convenience."

Phil Gormley, Deputy Chief Constable of West Midlands Police and ACPO lead on Mental Health and Disability said: "When people suffering mental health problems come into contact with the police it poses a specific challenge to a police service necessarily focused on prevention and detection of crime as well as the protection of life. In such circumstances there is an urgent need to provide places of safety for the vulnerable.

"The IPCC report, published today, follows ACPO national guidance on custody which explicitly states that police cells are not suitable for detaining people suffering mental health problems. The IPCC have also rightly identified the lack of suitable alternative places of safety which is the strongest factor in areas where police cells continue to be regularly used."


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