cell doorFour watchdogs have concluded that too many people experiencing mental ill health are being detained in police custody and have called for change.

The report by HM Inspectorates of Constabulary and Prisons, the Care Quality Commission and the Healthcare Inspectorate Wales found that in 2011/12 more than 9,000 people were detained in police cells as a ‘place of safety’. Some of these detainees were as young as 14 years old.

In the vast majority (81%) of the 70 cases examined in detail as part of this inspection, the reason for detention was that the person had either attempted suicide or self-harm, or indicated that they were thinking of doing so.

Section 136

The police have powers under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 to take individuals who are suffering from mental health issues in a public place to a ‘place of safety’ for their protection so they can be medically assessed. Legislative codes of practice are clear that in all but “exceptional” circumstances, this should be in a hospital, or other health setting.

However, people detained in police custody under section 136 are subject to the same processes and procedures, and kept in the same style of cell, as those arrested for crimes. Police custody cells are not designed to support their needs – but the inspection found section 136 detainees spend an average of 10 hours and 32 minutes in custody, and that the law allows for them to be detained up to 72 hours, without review. In contrast, those arrested for a crime can only be held for a maximum of 24 hours, during which time they must be reviewed regularly. The report calls for this disparity to be resolved.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including improving training and monitoring of use of section 136. It also calls for commissioners of health, mental health and social services to 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.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, Drusilla Sharpling, said, on behalf of all the inspectors: “This report finds that too many people are being detained in police custody under section 136. Their only ‘crime’ is that they have mental disorders, but they are treated in many ways as if they are criminals. This deplorable situation cannot be allowed to continue.

“To ensure the correct care and consideration is given to these vulnerable people our report outlines a series of recommendations not only for the police service, but also for other organisations responsible for protecting those suffering with mental health disorders.”

Need for care and support

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said that it was “outrageous” that suspected criminals can be released sooner from custody than people with mental health problems, who are simply unwell.       

“When someone is experiencing a mental health crisis they need care and support, not to be treated like they are a criminal. Often the reason that someone is detained by police is because they have attempted to take their own life so a police cell is a completely inappropriate environment and would be a terrifying experience for someone who is already distressed and confused.

“At present, people with mental health problems can be detained in custody for a maximum of 72 hours whereas those arrested for a crime can only be held for a maximum of 24 hours before having to be released or charged. We welcome the call for this to be brought in line, however, police cells should only ever be used as a place of safety as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted.      

“Last month the Independent Commission on Mental Health and Policing published a report recommending comprehensive mandatory mental health training for police officers. While many officers do treat people with mental health problems with dignity and compassion, we also know that police do not always have the skills required to provide the care and support that people with mental health problems need in these situations.

“We need to see more training and better multi-agency working agreements so that police can work in partnership with local hospitals, mental health liaison officers, and outreach teams.”