Police, Release Me


Last year I became very unwell and made a hoax call to
the police. I told them I was ill and in need of help. However, I
was locked in a cell, stripped naked and forced to put on a
forensic suit. I have physical problems as well in that I have
bladder weakness – I became soaking wet and had to take the
suit off. Nobody came near me for over three hours. The only thing
they did was get a doctor to examine me who had no knowledge of my
medical history. The care was non-existent. I should really have
been admitted to hospital. The police just don’t know what it
feels like. They treat you as if you are bad and a

This anonymous account from a woman with mental health problems
makes for shocking reading. Yet it is neither exceptional nor

With the closure of long-stay hospitals and increasing emphasis
on care in the community, the police have become more involved in
the lives of people with mental illness. This is partly because the
police are on hand 24 hours a day and are often the first to be
called to a situation. It might be that they are called by somebody
who wants to report a person acting strangely. Or it could be that,
with conventional mental health services closed after office hours,
a person who feels suicidal or who is self-harming has nowhere else
to turn.

The police are ill-equipped to deal with such people. During
their basic 15 to 18 week training, recruits receive minimal
information about mental illness and what they do learn tends to be
based on their powers under the Mental Health Act 1983.

“Mental health is included in a number of modules but it is not
concentrated on,” says Linda Van Den Hende, who works for the
Metropolitan Police and is the disability and mental health lead
for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

“There is no set number of hours and it is not about how to
recognise mental health issues and deal with them sensitively. They
don’t have what I might call a general awareness

Custody sergeants, who are responsible for detainees in police
cells, are given more training, but not much more. Those in the Met
receive an additional two hours – hardly enough given that it
is they who decide whether someone is fit to be interviewed and

Given the frequency with which officers come across people with
mental health problems, their lack of training is somewhat
alarming. Can they really be prepared for what becomes a
significant part of their job?

One survey found that in six police force areas there were 200
incidents involving people with mental health problems every
day.(1)  Many of these incidents – exact figures are unknown
due to lack of adequate recording – will be “section 136s”.
Under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, a police officer can
remove someone from a public place to a “place of safety” (usually
a hospital or police station) for assessment by a doctor.

Considering the number – and sensitive nature – of
the incidents, it stands to reason that at times the police will
make mistakes. This can mean mishandling that will only add to the
individual’s distress and occasionally has tragic

According to the Independent Police Complaints Commission
(IPCC), the body responsible for investigating police complaints in
England and Wales, about half of deaths in custody involve people
with mental illness – a disturbing figure given that 38
people died in custody in England and Wales in the year to March

The IPCC’s findings during its first year of operation
have led it to consider mental health as its single most important
area of concern.

But John Crawley, the IPCC commissioner with lead responsibility
for mental health, says that it is not just the police who are at

“Sometimes it is to do with statutory services not working
together,” he says. “The police do get it wrong but often they are
caught as a key actor in a complex system where they have
insufficient power to deliver what the person needs.

“Community mental health teams are not sufficiently resourced.
The police are often called because they are available and will
turn up. But sometimes it’s only the police who turn up. They
can be the first, and only, response.”

It is paramount then that the police are trained to deal with
incidents involving people with mental health problems. But what
sort of training should this be?

The Social Exclusion Unit’s 2004 report into mental health
highlights an

awareness course run by Northumbria police in response to
officers’ needs. Sessions were delivered by mental health
professionals and user groups who gave information on conditions
including psychosis, personality disorder and self-harm.
Independent evaluation found that the training resulted in quicker
and more appropriate responses to incidents – and improved
attitudes from officers.

Elsewhere, other forces have introduced a system whereby people
with mental health problems give talks to officers about their
experiences. While this is better than nothing, it is no substitute
for evidence-based, standardised training.

However, this is an area being developed. The government has
made £155,000 available to strengthen police training in
mental health and work is under way to establish what officers need
to know. By June 2007, the Central Police Training and Development
Authority (Centrex) is expected to be in a position to roll out
this training.

Better police awareness about mental illness is long overdue.
Those in the midst of a mental health crisis are often frightened
and distressed, and the way they are treated by a police officer
can be their make or break. Being spoken to like a criminal and
thrown in a police cell to “cool off” is, without doubt, the last
thing they need. 

  1. Mental Health and Social Exclusion, Social Exclusion
    Unit, 2004

Screaming sirens and flashing lights add to the

“I have mental health problems and, because of the behaviour of
the police, I am now denied emergency treatment when I need it.

“I suffer very severe long-term anxiety and one of my symptoms
is that I self-harm. When I have injured myself and called an
ambulance the police always come too, yet they know very well that
I am not a danger to anyone except myself.

“Despite this the police come, with sirens screaming and lights
flashing, and cause a great hoo-ha. Sometimes more than one police
car comes and they park all over the road. Before, when they came
into my flat, they left the police car lights flashing. It was as
if they had come to arrest a dangerous criminal. All my neighbours
were out and watching – it was awful. Goodness knows what
sort of total nutter they must think I am. And all because I had
injured myself superficially.

“The police also made a lot of noise with their radios going and
their loud voices. They had no intention of sparing me the
embarrassment. I think it’s quite likely they may have even
done it on purpose as the police hate people with mental health

“The police presence causes me massive trauma on top of the
trauma I already suffer from the illness. Because of the police I
have stopped calling ambulances and in effect have been denied

The right approach

“When the police came to collect me I told them that I
didn’t want their radio on as it was a Saturday afternoon in
the summer and everyone was in their gardens. So they turned their
radios off. When they got information they explained to me what was
happening. From what could have been a confusing and frightening
situation they did their best to explain things and reassure

“My brother has schizophrenia. Every time we saw the police in
action we saw calming, non-assertive, non-aggressive behaviour that
worked. The police referred my brother to the GP, and that led him
to being sectioned. The actions of the police led to him being
supported and getting treatment in the mental health system.”

“I work in a hostel. I’ve found that on the whole the
police react well when they’re experienced or have a superior
officer present. I have always found the police to be attentive,
co-operative and ready to do whatever is decided in the best
interests of the patient. I have never seen a single incident of
the police being heavy-handed or using any physical methods. This
may be a fluke. It could be that when they hear the incident on the
radio the only officers who attend are those who want to deal with

The wrong approach

“I was head-butting a police cell wall for three hours and they
didn’t know how to deal with me. They came in and put a cup
of coffee on the floor and walked out even though I had a bruise
the size of a tennis ball on my head. Another time I was at a tube
station, behaving oddly. The police saw me as a public nuisance.
They told me to go home but I said I couldn’t. They said
‘either go home or we will arrest you’. My flatmate
wouldn’t let me in and so I wandered around London and was
lost for 12 hours.”

“I live in a good bit of town. When I say I have a son who has
schizophrenia who has gone missing they send people round who
couldn’t be better. But they make assumptions based on how
people talk and where they live. I was once helping a mum who
needed to go to the police station where her son was being held as
he needed his medication. The custody sergeant wouldn’t let
us in. This family lived on a bad council estate and the police
made the assumption that the lad was criminal and not mentally ill.
It took us nearly three hours to get into the police station.”

“The police should be made fully aware of people with mental
health problems, perhaps with a department that specialises in this
field. Where I live the police can’t be bothered or
don’t have the knowledge to deal with people with mental
health problems.”




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