Police Federation

Are they actually missing or in need of professional help?

Chief Inspector Alan Rhees-Cooper of the West Yorkshire Police and Paul Matthews, National Board Member and PFEW Missing Persons Lead, share the national position adopted in respect of agencies and companies categorising at-risk individuals as missing persons.

13 March 2023

  • A 37-year-old male came into the job centre threatening suicide and has now gone missing. A 41-year-old British male is reported missing after threatening self-harm whilst on the phone with the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP).  
  • I am calling from DWP. The claimant is saying she is suicidal. I have tried to contact her throughout the day without success.
  • I work for the DWP. We have had a letter from a female stating that due to her claim being declined, she will hold the department responsible if she commits suicide.
  • A call from DWP: We received a call this morning at approximately 8.45am from a female stating she is suicidal. She stated that she had medication such as insulin, and diazepam, next to her and she intends to take it.

Chief Inspector Alan Rhees-Cooper (left) and NB Member Paul Matthews

These are some of the calls from the DWP reporting individuals as ‘missing persons’ because of self-harm concerns. It is important to understand the national position adopted in respect of agencies such as the DWP reporting individuals as ‘missing persons’ driven by such concerns. 

I am aware that some police forces are receiving similar calls from utility companies when a client is struggling to pay their bill or when their services are disconnected for non-payment of dues. In essence, these calls do not relate to missing persons but are requests for the police to conduct a welfare check at the home address of the clients.

I am sure we all recognise the pressures both on the ambulance service and on the mental health service. It is for this reason that the police often fill in the gaps. However, when seeking to improve services and the multi-agency response to these incidents, we must consider what is in the patient’s best interest. Fundamentally, these are mental health issues, and the police are not the best service to respond. When planning for the future, we need to move towards where we ought to be, not stand still and accept the status quo. Whilst accepting that the police service may not be at the same crisis point as the health services, the police service is struggling to meet current demand and our core business of preventing and detecting crime is being neglected because of the time police officers spend on crisis demand, predominantly mental health crisis demand. 

I accept that investment in mental health services is necessary if the police are going to be enabled to concentrate on the core policing business. If your house was on fire, you would call the fire service before calling the police. If it is a mental health issue, the mental health service should be called before the police. The police are under pressure to improve our response to violence against women, rape, child abuse, fraud, burglary, anti-social behaviour, public disorder, and many other types of crime. There is a misapprehension that the police have unlimited resources and can always act as the backstop.

The current reality is that many of these calls for service do not require an emergency response from any service. Police officers are not trained mental health professionals and are not equipped to assess the likelihood of the person resorting to self-harming. This is about risk management and sometimes it requires making the decision not to respond or having a delayed response. The individuals who are in the best position to make these difficult decisions are mental health professionals. 

It appears from the outside that the 111 service (mental health option) is where we should be moving to in the future. I fully appreciate that the service is not yet equipped to take to cater to all areas of the country and requires further investment, but as a partnership, we need to agree on the direction we should be moving in. Even in the last example above, which may require an emergency response, it is preferable for mental health professionals or the ambulance service to attend as it is a mental health issue, and the police are not the best resource to deal with a mental health crisis. Police officers in uniform turning up at a home address can sometimes exacerbate the situation and that is not in the patient’s best interest.

As Paul Matthews, PFEW National Board Member and Missing Persons Lead, says: “It is often said that the police are the service of last resort, and often we are, but all too often we are called upon as the service of first resort, particularly from other overstretched public services whose first call is to the police as opposed to more suitable agencies.

Due to years of underfunding, the police service is stretched to breaking point and hard questions need to be asked of what we can and should deliver. It is wrong to use the police to plug the gaps in other organisations, especially when the primary concern is to provide medical support. Clearly, the police will support these agencies to keep them safe, but we are not trained medical professionals to deal with those in such crisis. It is wrong to report individuals as missing when they are not and when they are suffering from a medical condition. In these cases, the appropriate agency should be called in the first instance.”

We have been liaising with the Home Office, Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), College of Policing and DWP, and everyone agrees that the police are just not the best service to respond to these incidents.

It is, therefore, recommended that:

  1. When a client threatens or implies self-harm or suicide, the first action should be to contact 111 (mental health option) or any other local contact number for mental health services. They are trained mental health professionals and will be able to access any previous mental health records to enable them to conduct a risk assessment. The 111 service is still inconsistent across the country, but work is ongoing to improve the service.
  2. If there is a real, immediate, and substantial risk to life or serious injury, and mental health services cannot assist, the ambulance service should be contacted next.
  3. The police should only be contacted when there are credible grounds to believe that there is a real, immediate, and substantial risk to life or serious injury, and both mental health professionals and the ambulance service have been unable to attend despite requests.

The Home Office, NPCC, DHSC and NHS England are currently working on a National Partnership Agreement (NPA) between the police service and health services that will set out the scenarios in which the police should and should not be involved in dealing with mental health issues. The NPA will be based on the Right Care, Right Person principle. We have requested that the missing person/welfare check issue is set out as one of the scenarios in which the police should not be involved. The Government is also investing in mental health ambulances. We are, therefore, moving in a direction whereby the police will not be involved in addressing these incidents in the future. There is still a long way to go, but if you are experiencing similar issues, I would encourage you to engage with your local partners, local DWP and local utility companies so that they are aware of the future direction and they can review their current policies.

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