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Matthew Ellis: Police are not best equipped nor best placed to deal with mental health patients for longer than necessary, they need healthcare support

By Rob Golledge | Staffordshire | Crime | Published:

Police officers in Staffordshire are spending thousands of hours tied up dealing with people suffering with mental health issues, it was revealed today.

Officers responded to more than 3,000 incidents involving mental health patients in the county last year, up three-fold from 2013.

Some people ended up being locked in police cells, even though they had not broken the law.

One of Matthew Ellis's slogans

Officers say they are often spending most of their shift sat in A&Es or ambulances with the mentally ill because of a lack of beds or available care.

Today Chief Constable Gareth Morgan and Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis revealed they would ban officers from locking up people with mental health problems in cells.

Mr Ellis said the number of mentally ill people ending up in custody had dropped by more than 80 per cent but that he has concerns the problem 'has spread elsewhere' and becoming 'hidden'.

He said: "The force has done really well on reducing the number of mentally ill people being detained in cells – but my concern now is that this was only a tiny part of the problem and now that it may have spread elsewhere.

"Anecdotally officers are telling me they are spending many hours in A&E departments, in the back of ambulances, or just trying to calm someone down.

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"With the current demand and growing security threat it is not right that officers' time is taken up in this way.

"My concern is that the problem has shifted from cells to elsewhere and has become hidden. It is clear the problem is getting bigger and we need to understand what is happening."

Mr Ellis has commissioned social justice charity Narco to carry out a major review in the state of mental health and public services in the county.

It follows from his 2014 Staffordshire Report which first exposed how mental health patients were ending up in police cells.

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The number of mentally ill people in custody in the country has fallen from 200 a year in 2012 to just 30 last year.

Mr Ellis said: "It was morally wrong that people who needed medical help were being locked up. Officers are very aware of that but I am aware that this issue could be just the tip of the iceberg."

Mr Ellis said forces across the country were recording information differently and in Staffordshire the number of hours officers spent dealing with mental health cases was not recorded at all – meaning it had no accurate idea of the problem.

He has also raised concerns about the 'crisis threshold' needed to trigger intervention by NHS mental health teams.

West Midlands Police has seconded a senior officer to the West Midlands Combined Authority to develop a region-wide strategy on mental health for the Black Country, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry.

Staffordshire Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis tells the Express & Star why action is needed on mental health

I must confess that before being elected as Staffordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner it wouldn’t have occurred to me that mental health issues and policing are quite so inextricably linked.

Less still would I have imagined that in the UK, in 2013, society would be routinely placing individuals with mental health issues in police cells when no crime had been committed, simply because there were no appropriate healthcare facilities available.

I admit that is a somewhat simplistic view of an immensely complex subject. After all, if I was walking down the street and saw someone distressed, acting irrationally or potentially putting themselves in harm’s way, I too would call the police in the first instance.

PCC Matthew Ellis

The urgency of that situation probably means they are needed initially but once things are under control the police are not equipped, nor best placed, to take responsibility for that person for any longer than is absolutely necessary. They need healthcare support and too often people can even end up criminalised in the justice system when they shouldn’t be.

In 2014 I kicked off work to understand the scale of the issues police faced. The ‘Staffordshire Report’ provided detailed analysis over an eight-week period of all police incidents involving mental health. It illustrated, case by case, the human aspect and the pressures on police officers, often in the middle of the night, dealing with individuals who have some sort of mental health condition.

It found 15 per cent of total police time here was spent dealing with mental health related incidents. Wellbeing of all individuals is paramount to policing but it is not wholly unreasonable to question the thousands of hours of police time spent supporting people in that situation when other services should be.

New thinking, extra investment from my office and renewed effort across all agencies since then means that the number of individuals ending up in custody in those circumstances has reduced by over 80 per cent in Staffordshire. Our work also stimulated other areas to focus on this very human and very practical issue as well as catching Government’s interest, resulting in new laws, joint concordats and national action.

I am the first to praise Staffordshire Police, healthcare professionals and everyone involved in achieving the goal I set which was to substantially reduce the number of people ending up in a cell who shouldn’t be there. In short using police custody as a ‘place of safety’ because no healthcare facilities are available now happens less here, and also across the country.

However, whilst this is genuine progress the situation may not be quite as it seems. The challenge for policing in relation to incidents involving mental health is much wider than simply the custody issue. At the sharp end, officers are still saying with certainty that they spend more time than ever dealing with incidents involving some aspect of mental health. So what is going on?

The lack of consistency locally and nationally around what constitutes a mental health associated police incident is not helpful. Not being clear about the length of time police officers spend dealing with each incident involving mental health may well be masking an even more complex picture.

The evidence suggesting police officers often spend hours waiting in A&E with people in their ‘care’ or comforting individuals in distress, is compelling. Not relying on police cells, as happened historically, is a big and humane step forward but it’s clear that officers are regularly going beyond their responsibilities, and expertise, by spending policing time filling gaps in some other public services

I’ve seen first-hand that collaborative working between police and health agencies has improved, no question on that. Although that does vary geographically across Staffordshire. Police are also now better trained to recognise mental ill-health and whilst the availability of crisis care beds is generally better now in Staffordshire that too varies geographically.

The wider pressures on policing are growing because of societal change, threats that emanate from countries far away and new types of crime in an internet connected world. It means our police have little or no capacity to pick up extra responsibilities that other agencies should be dealing with.

Understanding wider issues around the increasing number of young people suffering mental ill-health, the impact of so called legal highs and the widening spectrum of social and practical pressures that are often labelled mental health is crucial to policing and our society.

All this feels a bit déjà vu. It takes me back to 2014 and to me it is clear that a new piece of work is needed to update the one I commissioned back then. That will start soon and I’m also hosting a meeting of mental health professionals and leaders where I expect discussions to be honest all round, forthright and informative.

It is so important that society continues to accept and embrace the challenges mental health brings to all ages and all backgrounds. The signs are there in relation to understanding and being compassionate towards this highly complex, very human area of public work, but they ebb and they flow.

To deal better with the lasting problems that the mix of mental health, policing and criminal justice can bring we must have a true and comprehensive picture. I am hopeful that part two of the work I kicked off in 2014 will help once again to provide that.

Grant Williams has teamed up with Matthew Ellis after one of his relatives spent 19 hours in a cell

Grant Williams knows how people suffering from mental health can end up being locked up by police.

A family member of his spent more than 19 hours locked in a police cell.

It not only tied up police who could be elsewhere fighting crime, but also added to the pain of the family involved and contributed to the break-up of a marriage.

The patient, who suffers from depression and personality disorder, ended up in police custody because there was no available beds in Staffordshire for her.

The experience was so traumatic that it made her condition worse.

Mr Williams, 62, of Staffordshire, accused the health service of 'shirking' its responsibility. He has joined with Mr Ellis in highlighting the problem.

Matthew Ellis with Grant Williams, right

He said his relative had been kept in police cells at least three times.

"It is ridiculous," said Mr Williams. "It is so frustrating because mental health patients are not getting the support they need.

"You have to jump through hoops to get the right care and the health authorities just shrug their shoulders."

Mr Williams said the police would be called to the relative's house after neighbours reported hearing noises like shouting and screaming.

"Officers would treat it a bit like a domestic violence case and remove my relative," he said. "But they would end up in a cell because there was no room for them at the local mental health hospital.

"It is not right that they end up in police cells. There was one case when they were locked up for 19-and-a-half hours and it had a devastating impact and led to the break-up of their marriage it was that bad. It put them under more distress and they were not getting the medication they needed.

"It is so frustrating but you are in a cycle where people with mental health problems are being treated like criminals because of the gaps in the health service.

"I don't blame the police – they are not carers. There is a lack of provision in the health service to deal with these cases and nothing seems to be being done about it."

Rob Golledge

By Rob Golledge
@golledge_star

Part of the Express & Star special projects team responsible for investigations and major stories from politics to counter terrorism

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