Social workers must seize this chance to improve mental health policing

Mental health social workers see the impact of good and bad mental health policing firsthand. You need to feed your experiences into a new commission investigating the police's response to these issues, writes Inspector Michael Brown.

Pic: Albanpix ltd/rex features

I want to put an argument forward about the importance of (particularly London) social workers responding to the survey of the Independent Commission on Policing and Mental Health, which launched this week. 

For those of you who have not heard of it, this Commission has been established by the Metropolitan Police commissioner to identify how they can develop the way that the police respond to incidents involving mental ill health.

I’m sure plenty of people will have a lot to say, but in my opinion, mental health social workers and approved mental health professionals (AMHPs) are especially important.

Mental health social workers see policing, and its impact, at close quarters

You guys see policing at close quarters in so many direct and indirect ways; the illegal section 136 detentions under the Mental Health Act, the misunderstanding of what section 135 warrants can and cannot do, and when they can and cannot be obtained.

You see the impact these factors have upon your own decision-making and upon service users. You also have intimate experience of the health and social care organisations with whom the police must interface. We all know these organisations are also far from perfect. 

We know that police forces could improve and we know that there are some issues caused for policing by the NHS and local authorities. Issues include:



  • Police inability to access timely support for some crisis situations, like unpredicted mental health emergencies in private premises.
  • The need to improve training of police officers in mental health and legal awareness of Mental Health Act and Mental Capacity Act frameworks.
  • Lack of an evidence basis for the exclusion criteria which effect police management of challenging detainees for s136 and place of safety admissions; lack of available staff to take on s136 detentions from the police where risks are low and manageable.
  • Lack of commissioning oversight (on both sides) for the joint arrangements we put in place.

The Commission, chaired by Lord Adebowale and involving the Association of Chief Police Officers’ mental health lead, chief constable Simon Cole, will publish their report in March 2013 so their website is worth bookmarking, but the survey has a completion deadline of 11th February 2013. 

Police, professional and public views are needed

It is my strong personal view that the interface between policing, mental health and criminal justice often invokes emotionally skewed views because of people’s particular perspective. This is not a criticism: it is natural and to be expected and I absolutely include myself in this remark. 

Only if we ensure a broad cross-section of responses from the police, other professionals and far more importantly from the public we serve, can Lord Adebowale and his team stand a chance of blending this into sensible recommendations which we can all use to make the world a better place.

Please take 15 minutes (max) to complete the survey because, as social workers, you have a unique perspective on these issues and upon policing. 

A few issues I’ll be raising

When I respond to the Commission later this week, I will be covering various things that I’ve mentioned on my blog in what is very nearly 250 articles on the “natural venn diagram” between mental health, policing and criminal justice that I am interested in. This is a snapshot:

1. Provision of s136 places of safety
Thinking outside the box about where these could be and how we structure integrated health and police services to manage the most challenging cases, which prompted the Commission’s inquiry. These include cases like Sean Rigg, Olaseni Lewis, Michael Powell and Kingsley Burrell.

2. Deaths in Custody
There are various points to make about the criminalisation of medical issues and the medicalisation of crime issues: as well as about the “duality” of the most high-profile matters that have led to tragedies in police stations and vans around the UK. There are answers to this, but they are at the strategic if not political levels.

3. Training of Police Officers
Why do 17% of all police demand they get mental health training measured in hours or, at most, days when other police training takes weeks ensuring the understanding of complex legal and procedural frameworks? And could we not train and then use officers in a different way to ensure better knowledge and experience is deployed?

4. Diversion of Offenders
Do we know what this means in the real world to custody sergeants who have to make incredibly tough calls? Do the necessary services exist in a responsive way to ensure diversion is influenced by the right information and done well? Not currently, in my view.

5. Senior Leadership on Mental Health
There is a survey to complete because the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has shown leadership in establishing the Commission.

We also need leadership at the very local level and I have no reason to suppose that the Metropolitan Police boroughs and their health counterparts are different to anywhere else where there is a different amount of focus and priority afforded to mental health policing issues.

As it is key to public confidence in policing, we need informed senior and middle leaders on the case.

6. Joint Inspection
We absolutely know for a fact, that many procedures and processes for application of arrangements around the policing mental health interface are in breach of laws, codes of practice or jointly agreed guidelines and procedures. Who is policing this and requiring improvement in those arrangements?

7. Research 
We need to know more about this stuff. We don’t even know how many s136 cases there have been, never mind 135s or AWOL patients from hospitals. How can we then possibly say we understand the issues arising?

“The police are the public and the public are the police”, said Sir Robert Peel when establishing the Metropolitan Police in 1829, so let’s do this together and make it right by telling the Commission what we think.



Inspector Michael Brown is the author of the MentalHealthCop blog.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.