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West Midlands Police Federation

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‘We are not mental health experts’

27 November 2018


Expecting police to be mental health experts or social workers is unfair for officers and the public, according to West Midlands Police Federation chair Rich Cooke.

Rich was commenting as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) today published a report on mental health and policing.

The report, which is entitled ‘Picking Up The Pieces’, concludes that police officers are increasingly being used as the service of default in responding to people with mental health problems.

“This report is yet more evidence to back up what the Police Federation has been saying for some time. We try our best to help people in crisis. We are supportive and compassionate but we are not mental health experts and should not be left to fill the gaps in provision by other cash-strapped organisations,” says Rich.

“Police officers are trying their best to help the public and the report makes it clear that we are doing a good job in difficult circumstances. But it also raises concerns over whether the police should be involved in responding to people with mental health problems at the current level.

“On a daily basis, front-line officers spend increasing amounts of time helping and supporting people in crisis. This takes them away from other duties like preventing crime and catching criminals.

“We need to see an urgent re-think. It is often wrong for people with mental health problems to find themselves in the back of a police car or under police guard for long periods of time but there is frequently no other safe option"

“In the West Midlands, we have developed a mental health triage team staffed by a small number of officers and healthcare professionals. This works well but those officers are often overwhelmed with the demand.”

HM Inspector of Constabulary Zoë Billingham has praised officers for their efforts to cope with the mental health crisis.

“Police officers naturally want to respond and do their best to support vulnerable people when they ask for help. And we found that police officers respond to those with mental health problems with care and compassion,” she said.

“But we cannot expect the police to pick up the pieces of a broken mental health system. Over-stretched and all too often overwhelmed police officers can’t always respond appropriately, and people in mental health crisis don’t always get the help they need.”

She added: “All too often, the system is failing people when they most need help. This is not a problem that the police alone can solve. Other services need to stop relying on the 24/7 availability of the police.

“We have grave concerns about whether the police should be involved in responding to mental health problems to the degree they are. Fundamental change is needed urgently in the way those with mental health problems are supported by the state. The police should be the last resort, not the first port of call.”

HMICFRS assessed how effectively police forces in England and Wales as well as the British Transport Police identified people with mental health problems and when they first contacted the force; identified and recorded the number of cases involving people with mental health problems to provide the right support; and made sure expert help is available from other organisations, in particular health professionals.

The report, which includes five recommendations, identifies that police forces could improve training and building a clearer view of demand. But the report concludes that the longer-term solution must involve all public services if it is to provide people with mental health problems with the expert support they deserve.

National Federation chair John Apter has put the blame for the problems in meeting demand for mental health support services firmly at the Government’s door.

“The Government’s austerity policies have led us to this dire state. I hope the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary read this report and hang their heads in shame at the situation they have not only created, but were warned about, on numerous occasions,” he said.

“It is not right for anyone – officers or the public – that the police should be responsible for the safety and welfare of people that other professionals would be better placed to deal with.”

Read the report in full.