An Independent Police Complaints Commission study into the use of police powers under the 1983 Mental Health Act has found twice as many people are being held in cells as hospitals.
Of the 17,400 people found suffering from distress in a public place in 2005-6, officers brought two-thirds (11,500) into “inappropriate” police cells, compared to 5,900 who were taken to hospitals, today’s study said.
Such practice is “intolerable” in the 21st century, according to the IPCC, demonstrating the failure of national directives for forces to only use police stations as a place of safety in exceptional circumstances.
The IPCC commissioner leading on mental health, Ian Bynoe, explained police custody was inappropriate because it tended to “criminalise behaviour which is not criminal”. The conditions were often hostile, he added, and “devoid of anything suggestive of comfort”, which may aggravate a person’s condition.
Hospitals preferred since 1990
Section 136 of the act requires police to remove from a public place people who are in ‘immediate need of care and control’ to a designated ‘place of safety’ for assessment, for up to 72 hours. Hospitals have been the preferred facility since 1990, while the revised Code of Practice for the 1983 Act, issued in 1999, states police cells should be used “only on an exceptional basis”.
The practice varied significantly across the 43 police forces of England and Wales, however. The highest rates were reported by Sussex Police, with 277 held in police cells per 10,000 people in custody, while the lowest rate of one per 10,000 was reported by Cheshire Police and Merseyside Police.
The report, Police Custody as a Place of Safety, said the variations were due to the availability of alternative facilities in different areas, while a common feature in low-rated areas was strong partnerships between police forces and primary care trusts.
The solution was for NHS trusts, which received £130m to create suitable places of safety in 2006, to continue developing alternatives to police custody.
Phil Gormley, from the Association of Chief Police Officers, admitted that the widespread use of police custody for this purpose was unacceptable, but said capacity for alternative places of safety needed to improve across the country.