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Police forces are making decisions to hold people with mental health issues in custody beyond the legal maximum, due to difficulties accessing hospital beds.
In cases where someone is brought to custody under arrest is then diverted from the criminal justice to the mental health system as a patient, officers often have to decide to keep someone detained for their own safety, despite there being no power in domestic law to do so. Custody sergeants report a legal dilemma in these cases – on the one hand they are obligated under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to release suspects once decisions are taken about the alleged offence or after 24 hours in custody, but they cannot continue to detain someone who is unwell unless an ‘Approved Mental Health Professional’ has completed a legal application under the Mental Health Act.
A review by 21 police forces found 264 cases involved the police feeling obliged to keep someone safe by holding them in custody beyond the period allowed by custody law because of delays in finding a hospital bed. This likely represents a small fraction of the real picture – professional estimates suggest there could be more than 2,000 cases every year.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for Mental Health and Policing, Chief Constable Mark Collins said: “Police officers have a duty to ensure that anyone brought into custody facing a mental health crisis is directed to a medical professional as soon as possible – it is a real concern that this is not happening quickly enough in potentially thousands of cases and each case potentially represents a violation of that person’s fundamental human rights.
“This is a legal problem that is emerging more frequently across the country so we want to work closely with the statutory regulator the Care Quality Commission to collect more accurate data and secure timely admission for people when they need it most.
“Recent figures have shown good progress by all police forces to reduce the number of cases in which a police cell is used as a place of safety under Section 136 so it is absolutely vital that we work closely with our partners to address this legal gap and work together to protect vulnerable and mentally ill people.”
In Manchester the Healthcare in Custody and Wider Liaison and Diversion Service was commissioned in February 2017, delivered by the contract company Mitie Care and Custody, North West Boroughs Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, and Cheshire and Greater Manchester Community Rehabilitation Company..
Baroness Beverley Hughes, Manchester Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, said: “While keeping the public safe is the number one priority, it’s clear that a custody cell or prison is not always the right place for vulnerable people, such as veterans, homeless people, or people with learning disabilities. The criminal justice system doesn’t solve their problems and doesn’t put a stop their behaviour. Too often their actions are directly linked to problems in other areas of their life – a disruption in taking prescribed medication, problems managing debt, alcohol addiction, housing problems. These are the issues that need resolving.”