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Metropolitan Police: Move to attend fewer mental health calls sparks alarm

  1. By Sean Seddon & Sean Dilley

  2. BBC News

28 May 2023

Updated 27 minutes ago

The Met Police’s plan to stop attending emergency mental health incidents is “potentially alarming”, a former inspector of constabulary has said.

From September, officers will only attend mental health 999 calls where there is an “immediate threat to life”.

Zoe Billingham, who was previously Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue, said the proposals could create a “vacuum”.

Mental health charity Mind has also expressed concerns over the plan.

The Met argues the move will free up officers after a significant rise in the number of mental health incidents being dealt with by the force in the past five years.

Some police chiefs believe this is down to the service increasingly being seen as the first resort for people in a crisis, as well as a lack of capacity in the NHS and social services to deal with growing mental health demands.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley wrote to health and social care services in Greater London to inform them of the plan last week, the Guardian first reported.

In the letter, which has been seen by the BBC, Sir Mark said it takes almost 23 hours on average from the point at which someone is detained under the Mental Health Act until they are handed into medical care.

He writes that his officers are spending more than 10,000 hours a month on “what is principally a health matter”, adding that police and other social services are “collectively failing patients” by not ensuring they receive appropriate help, as well as failing Londoners more generally because of the effect on police resources.

But Ms Billingham, who is now chair of the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS mental health trust after 12 years as Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue, warned mental health services are “creaking” and “in some places are so subdued with demand they are not able to meet the requirements of people who need it most”.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she warned there is “simply no other agency to call” other than the police for people in crisis, adding: “There isn’t another agency to step in and fill the vacuum.”

She expressed doubts about the timeframe set by the Met for the change, adding that she would be “very surprised” if mental health trusts across London are able to get extra round-the-clock mental health facilities up and running by 31 August.

Image caption,

Sir Mark Rowley envisions the plan will free up police resources

Ken Marsh, chairman of the Met Police Federation – which represent officers up to the rank of chief inspector – broadly welcomed the announcement.

But he said officers will still attend “most” calls because they will be concerned about the consequences of not responding.

“At the end of the day, who makes the decision that you can’t go to something and if God forbid this ended up in a coroner’s court, what does my officer then say?”

Ms Billingham agreed a total withdrawal is unlikely in practice, but warned it would be “really, really dangerous” if the Met took that approach.

She authored a 2018 study which looked at the increasing demands mental health crises were putting on police, including:

  1. Officers being called to detain people under the Mental Health Act – half of which result in them having to transport patients to a medical facility

  2. Long waits in A&E with someone having a mental health crisis when specialist NHS help can’t be obtained immediately

  3. Supporting victims of crime with mental health problems – who are estimated by Mind to be three times more likely to become a victim – and carrying out welfare checks

  4. Attending mental health crises, including where someone is threatening to take their own life, in order to close roads, speak to them, or protect the public

  5. Looking for missing people, including those in extreme distress or with dementia

In March, Sir Mark Rowley told BBC Newsnight that the staff hours involved in policing mental health is equivalent to dealing with 500,000 victims of domestic abuse.

He pointed to one case where Met officers spent 30 hours supervising one individual having a crisis because they were unable to find a space in a mental health unit.

“This isn’t what [police officers] are trained to do, they’re the wrong people to be doing it, we’re letting vulnerable people down,” he added.

Sarah Hughes, chief executive of Mind, has warned there is not enough capacity in other public services to replace the work police officers currently do.

She told Today she was “not persuaded we’ve got enough in the system to tolerate a shift to this new approach” and said the Met and NHS “urgently need to sit down together and work out a plan in response to these major concerns”.

The charity has also warned that mental health services have been “chronically underfunded for decades”, and called for any changes to be made “carefully and collectively so that no-one is left without support”.

It was the question I asked for a Radio 4 documentary series more than a decade ago when senior officers were already concerned at “mission creep”, forces expected to fill the gaps left by cuts to other public services.

In fact, the argument about where police responsibility starts and stops can be traced back almost 200 years to the birth of the Met itself.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel set out his policing principles in which he stated the police were “paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence”.

“Community welfare” implies a far broader responsibility than simply investigating crimes and catching villains.

There is an expectation that police officers will respond to concern about the confused elderly man who has gone missing, or the young girl in obvious distress in the street.

People expect them to help when the water main bursts or a loud party continues into the small hours.

Sir Mark Rowley wants to prompt a national debate about what society regards as the priorities for forces, and whether there needs to be greater focus on other public service’s responsibilities.

The College of Policing defines a mental health incident as “any police incident thought to relate to someone’s mental health where their vulnerability is at the centre of the incident”.

Police officers are estimated to spend 20-40% of their time dealing with such incidents.

The Met’s new plan has already been adopted by Humberside Police, who introduced the Right Care, Right Person (RCRP) scheme in 2020 to ensure mental health calls are dealt with by mental health professionals.

A Metropolitan Police spokesperson said the RCRP programme was “hugely successful in improving outcomes, reducing demand on all services, and most importantly ensuring that the right care is being delivered by the right person.”

“Police are compassionate and highly skilled but they are not trained to deliver mental health care and spend an average of 10 hours with a patient when they are sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

“In London alone between 500-600 times a month, officers are waiting for this length of time to hand over patients, and it cannot continue,” they added.

The government announced a £150m capital investment in January to improve the places and spaces across the NHS for people experiencing – or at risk of experiencing – a mental health crisis.

It said the funding will allow for the procurement of up to 90 new mental health ambulances, which will take specialist staff directly to patients to deliver support on scene or transfer them to the most appropriate place for care.

If you are affected by any of the issues in this article you can find details of organisations that can help via the BBC Action Line.

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