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Greater Manchester no longer has a Police and Crime Commissioner. The Mayor of Greater Manchester has now taken responsibility for policing and crime.

Scandal of mentally ill patients being held in police cells must end

People with mental health problems need a hospital bed not a police cell, Greater Manchester’s Police and Crime Commissioner has said.

Tony Lloyd spoke out  after the extent of the problem was laid bare in an important inspection report which revealed that more than 9,000 people in England and Wales were taken into police custody under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act.

Police have powers under the act to take individuals who are suffering from mental health issues in a public place to a “place of safety‟ for their protection, and so they can be medically assessed. This often arises when people are attempting or threatening suicide.

A “place of safety” should be a hospital or other health setting, but instead police are being routinely forced to house them in cells.

Tony said: “The police will always be the agency of first response, but too many times they are being used as the agency of last resort and this important report gives some sense of the scale of the problem.

“ The pressure this puts on police is simply unacceptable and it is terrible for those being detained. Let’s not forget they’ve not committed any offence. They are in a police cell simply because they are unwell and the NHS either can’t or won’t take them in. It’s shameful. Worse – it’s scandalous.”

The inspection report, by HM Inspectorates of Constabulary and Prisons, the Care Quality Commission, and the Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, revealed the most common explanations for people being taken to a cell were: insufficient staff at a health-based place of safety; the absence of available beds at the health-based place of safety; the person had consumed alcohol; or the person either was displaying violent behaviour, or had a history of doing so.

Tony added: “In other words, police officers are having to act as health workers. This puts a huge burden on them and is not sustainable in the current environment of reducing police numbers and shrinking budgets.

“I’ve been given countless examples of where the NHS have turned away people who are being detained under Section 136 and the reasons given are just not good enough.

“Our police should be on the streets, and our doctors and nurses should be administering care to the unwell. At the moment, the system is broken and it needs to be fixed.”

Some of the examples given to Tony include:

  • Three hospitals across Greater Manchester refused to admit a woman who had jumped in front of traffic. Officers were told the woman, who also suffered from diabetes, wouldn’t be admitted anywhere because she had been drinking and said she needed to sober up in a cell. This is against medical guidance – and the recommendation of several coroners after people had died in police custody in similar circumstances.
  • A specialist mental health hospital denied access to a suicidal man because he had been drinking. He was not being violent or aggressive and had stopped drinking several hours beforehand. Staff said he should sober up in a police cell and security staff then ordered the police officers off the hospital site, forcing them to take him to a police cell. His medical assessment at the police station found he was “slightly” intoxicated and of normal risk for a person suffering from mental health issues.
  • A patient was reported missing from a mental health facility. Police found the man, but when they returned the man to the facility they said he had now been “discharged” and refused to take him back, and he was subsequently detained under the act.
  • A patient was forced to spend SIX HOURS in a police van after being refused entry to one mental health unit, before being taken to the nearest A&E department, then sent to a second mental health unit, then a second A&E before finally being accepted into a third mental health unit.

Tony sent a dossier of these and other examples to the Policing Minister earlier this year to highlight the problem. He is now urging police and health to work together to resolve this issue.

He added: “I’m pleased to see the report recommends that commissioners of health services ensure that they put the resources in place to receive people detained under section 136 in a health-based setting, and to assess them quickly. Earlier this year I announced that I was setting aside £200,000 for police and NHS to work together in this area. This extra money gives the opportunity to look at ways we can implement this sensible recommendation.

“Ultimately working together is the only way we can resolve this serious issue. Getting the health professionals in at the right point – and that’s at the start – and getting the patient to a true place of safety frees up police time, helps the individual and benefits the health service in the long run. It’s common sense.”

Tony will now meet with health and police chiefs in Greater Manchester to discuss the report and identify how the recommendations can be implemented.

The report can be read here.

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