Do a third of mentally ill people found by police end up in custody?

Published: 18th Feb 2014

"The Police and Crime Commissioners organisation said that 36% of mentally ill people found in public and held by police end up in cells instead of with health professionals"

Daily Mirror and ITV News, 18 February 2014

If people show signs of mental illness in public, the police have the power to intervene if it appears necessary.

According to two media outlets this morning, a third of people deemed mentally ill in these cases end up in police cells.

The figures are there to prove it; although there's a lot we don't know about the extent of the issue.

The rules

According to Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983, police constables can remove people who appear to be suffering from mental disorder in need of care or control to a 'place of safety', where they should be examined and necessary arrangements made for their treatment.

That 'place of safety' can include a care home, a hospital, a police station and any other "suitable place" where someone is willing to accommodate the person being detained (such as a relative's home).

But police stations should only be used on an "exceptional basis" according to the Code of Practice issued by the Department of Health alongside the legislation, and by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Locations offering mental health services are deemed preferable.

And the government still says as much:

"It is not acceptable for people detained under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983, who are not being investigated for a crime, to be taken into police custody-other than in genuinely exceptional circumstances, such as the person's behaviour presenting an unmanageably high risk of harm to health care patients or staff."

The reality

Last year (2012/13) 21,814 people were ordered to a place of safety under Section 136, according to police records and figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). Of those, 7761 (36%) were sent to police custody. The rest were sent to hospitals.

But the figures don't cover people sent to residential homes or relatives' homes, so it's not possible to judge the actual scale accurately.

We also don't know the circumstances in which the police decided to remove individuals to police stations. The HSCIC suggests these cases can include people who are heavily drunk who can't be safely managed and people who act violently. However a report from last year by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary suggested a lack of available hospital beds locally was also a factor.

The government has announced a review into the operation of Section 136 and since published its 'Mental Health Crisis Care Concordat' in which a range of organisations involved in mental health sign up to a series of common aims, such as reducing the use of police custody in Section 136 removals. Whether and how this will have an impact upon the figures remains to be seen.


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