If people see someone who’s psychotic and going into a mental health hospital, they think they are always like that. It’s useful for a police officer to know that they may be OK most of the time, it’s good for them to have an insight into the nature of mental illness,” says John*, one of several service users involved in Sussex Police’s community placement training.
The idea behind the scheme, says Jane Davey, the force’s community placement support officer, is to take student officers out of their comfort zone by putting them on a placement where they will come into contact with issues and elements of society they haven’t come across before, such as people with mental illness or disabilities, people from ethnic minorities and homeless people. “It encourages community policing and raises the profile of police,” she says.
Sussex Police works with more than 180 host organisations, such as learning disability and mental health charity United Response, which supports John. Other organisations on the force’s books include Scope, NCH, YMCA, Anchor, Nacro and Headway.
Every student has a two-week placement shadowing a member of staff from one of the host organisations as part of their 43-week training. After placements the students spend a couple of days debriefing to the whole intake so that all the recruits gain knowledge on the various areas covered by the placements. Sussex Police (briefed by the neighbouring Kent force which already had a scheme running) is on its eleventh intake since the scheme started in 2006, with the number of students varying between 17 and 82 at a time. A confidentiality protocol to protect the host organisation and service users ensures that any information, including criminal activity witnessed by a student officer, is reported to the host organisation but not the police.
Vicky Arnell-Smith, service manager for United Response’s mental health outreach service covering Bognor, Chichester and Midhurst, was among those who saw Sussex Police’s advert asking for organisations working with vulnerable people to work with the force.
“One consideration for us in taking part was concern over what our clients would think of us as an organisation because we were doing this,” she says. “We are aware of the negative experiences some have had and they can have prejudices [against the police] themselves.”
An important aim of the training is to challenge the fears and misunderstandings that both groups may hold about each other. For example, a survey by Mind found that, although 71% of people with mental health needs admitted being victims of crime, 30% of these did not report the incident because they feared they wouldn’t be believed.
“We didn’t perceive any prejudice [from the students] but after the first week they had still learned a profound amount and were questioning values they had brought in because their perceived ideas didn’t match reality,” says Arnell-Smith. “They were meeting people with mental health problems that they didn’t think would have them.
“There are people who lead normal lives when they are well, but when they become unwell their reasoning and reality become altered. They can be 65, living in a nice area, female, the neighbours don’t suspect anything until an assessment under the Mental Health Act takes place. Then it’s not uncommon for the police to be called to escort them to a mental health unit. So there’s an ambulance and police cars outside, they’re being manhandled by police officers who don’t understand what’s going through their head and not realising what they will go through when they go back home and face gossiping neighbours.
“The placements give them a chance to tell officers what happened to them, the shame and embarrassment they felt because there is still a stigma about mental health.”
The officers learn about care plans, and know to ask whether someone has a psychiatrist or are on medication if they suspect mental illness.
“It means the user knows they understand,” says Arnell-Smith. This understanding makes a huge difference to how they deal with people on the street, she adds.
John appreciates how important this is, having ended up in a police cell in the past and been sectioned because of manic episodes. “I have been treated appallingly on a couple of times, about 10 years ago, but it’s been better in recent years,” he says.
“When you’re in custody you are going to be intimidated if you’re not compos mentis. The police need to have a better insight into mental health issues because it’s more likely that someone with a psychotic illness will come into contact with the police than someone without. This training means I would feel more confident about going to the police to report a crime and it leaves officers much more equipped for the streets.”
The student officers certainly feel this is the case. Student PC Karl Linale, who had his placement with United Response, has already encountered an incident where the placement helped him resolve it calmly.
“We were called to a rehab unit because a guy had kicked off after he wasn’t given his medication,” Linale says. “When we arrived the professional that had called us just said ‘arrest him’ and that escalated the situation. Everyone was gathering around him, so we took him outside and he had a cigarette and we started talking to him. I found out he liked music and science and he felt comfortable talking about that so it calmed him down. He said he was sorry and wanted to speak to the doctor and it was arranged to move him somewhere else because he couldn’t cope at the rehab unit.
“It’s about trying to talk to them and find out what the issues are. They might tell you what’s wrong and it might be something simple so you don’t have to go in guns blazing.”
Fellow student PC James Edwards, also placed with United Response, says: “Before I started the placement I had many preconceived ideas about mental health. I thought I was intelligent and mature enough to have a good understanding of how it affects individuals and the community. However, by the second day of my placement that had all turned upside down.
“I started to realise that all my ideas were based on media coverage and little knowledge. I had believed, for example, that everyone with a mental health need came from underprivileged backgrounds. But I soon realised that all the individuals that I met were just that, individuals, and the only thing they had in common was that they had been diagnosed with a mental illness.”
Both host organisations and participants in the scheme are confident it will leave police officers in Sussex better able to respond positively to a vulnerable member of their community who is in distress or danger.
*Name has been changed
Be the perfect host
Vicky Arnell-Smith from United Response gives her top tips for host organisations.
● Make sure the client, your staff team and your partners in the community are on board from the start. We checked with local care co-ordinators and the in-patient unit to find out how they would feel about working with the police. This meant we were able to set up some interesting visits for the students. For example, we made sure they had a tour of the local in-patient unit to help them gain a better understanding of what it’s like inside a secure hospital. This also helped them to gain some knowledge of the terminology used in mental health and the names of local doctors and wards, which would be invaluable in dealing with people in the future.
● Put a confidentiality agreement in place and make sure that everyone is aware of it.
● Make it fun. If the client enjoys golf suggest that the student officer plays a round with them. People open up a lot more when they are relaxed.
● Speak to the student before the first day to give them some practical tips. The nature of outreach work means it is important for all students to have their own transport.
● Create the right first impression. We asked all our students to dress casually to put the client at ease
This article is published in the 18 September issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Police Help Me