cell doorRenewed calls have been made for parliament to end the use of police cells as ‘places of safety’ for people in mental health crisis, as new figures show that it is still a daily occurrence for some forces.

Mental health charity Mind has made the call, after new data from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Lead for Mental Health showed that there were more than 2,000 instances where a police cell was used as a place of safety last year.

The Policing and Crime Bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords, will end the use of cells as places of safety for under 18s who are suicidal, self-harming or in psychosis, but Mind wants this to be extended to adults too.

The NPCC Lead for Mental Health figures show the number of times different Police Force Areas across England and Wales detained people under section 136 of the Mental Health Act in 2015/16, and reveal huge variation in the number of occasions vulnerable people were taken to cells.

There were 2,100 instances of people being held in police cells in England and Wales in 2015/16 – a fall of more than 50% on the previous year. But despite this progress, there is still a huge variation, with some police forces not using cells on any occasion for the entire year, while others have recorded hundreds of instances of detentions in cells. 

West Yorkshire Police Force Area detained people 269 times under section 136 in a police cell, the highest number of all Police Force Areas, according to the figures. This was closely followed by Avon and Somerset (242), South Wales (192), Lincolnshire (173), Sussex (151) and Essex (110). 

Conversely, Merseyside and Hertfordshire Police Force Areas did not use section 136 to detain people in crisis in cells a single time that year, while City of London, Leicestershire, West Midlands, Northumbria and Suffolk Police Force Areas all recorded using police cells as places of safety just a handful of times (either 2 or 3).

The NPCC Lead for Mental Health’s figures show that not holding vulnerable individuals in cells is possible and achievable, particularly if there are sufficient health-based places of safety available. The large reduction in the use of police cells has been a joint effort building on the Crisis Care Concordats in England and Wales, which are enabling different agencies, such as the police and NHS, to work together to improve support for people in mental health crisis. But Mind believes that police cells are never an appropriate place for someone in mental health crisis, and is calling for a ban on their use.

Paul Farmer CBE, chief executive of Mind, said: “When you’re in a mental health crisis, you may become frustrated, frightened and extremely distressed. Your behaviour could be perceived as aggressive and threatening to others, but you desperately need support and compassion. Being held in a police cell and effectively treated like a criminal only makes things worse. Now is the moment to ban this damaging practice once and for all.

“At Mind, we hear from people left cold and hungry, unable to sleep from the noise from people in other cells, or kept in the dark because lightbulbs have been removed to prevent self-harming. People are routinely strip-searched, and deprived of personal possessions like mobile phones, which can have a dehumanising and isolating effect.

“In many parts of the country, police forces are showing us what is possible. If Merseyside and Hertfordshire police forces can entirely avoid detaining vulnerable people in police cells, so can the rest of England and Wales. We’re urgently calling on the Government and Welsh Assembly to ban the use of police cells for everyone – both adults and children – in a mental health crisis.

“Rather than holding people in cells, it’s far better to take them somewhere appropriate like a hospital. We know that health-based places of safety aren’t always available at present, but some resources are being made available for this to be implemented. The figures clearly show what’s possible – with some police forces never needing to take people in crisis to police cells, and others having to resort to this hundreds of times a year. It should never be appropriate to detain someone in crisis in a police cell.”

Inspector Wayne Goodwin, Force mental health liaison officer for Kent Police, said: “Kent Police believe that the use of police cells for those detained under the mental health act should be a never event. Cells are not appropriate places for anyone detained under the act and we know that their use can add to trauma of the crisis and potentially delay that person’s recovery. Police officers and staff are not experts in dealing with mental health crisis and although we will do our best for that person’s health and welfare, they can only receive the proper care they need in a healthcare setting.”