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'Dehumanising' use of police cells for people in mental health crisis must end


6 min read Partner content

Mental health charity Mind calls for the Government to end the use of cells as ‘places of safety’ for adults suffering from mental health crisis. 

The mental health charity Mind is calling on parliament to end the use of police cells as ‘places of safety’ for people in mental health crisis, as new data from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Lead for Mental Health shows some forces are still putting people who are unwell in cells on a daily basis.

The Policing and Crime Bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords, will end the use of cells as ‘places of safety’ for under 18s who are suicidal, self-harming or in psychosis, but Mind is calling for this to be extended to adults too.

The figures show the number of times different Police Force Areas across England and Wales detained people under section 136 of the Mental Health Act in 2015/16, and reveal huge variation in the number of occasions vulnerable people were taken to cells.

In total, there were 2,100 instances of people being held in police cells in England and Wales in 2015/16, less than half compared to the 4,537 held in 2014/15. Despite progress being made in reducing the use of police cells for people in crisis, there is still a huge variation across England and Wales, with some police forces not using cells on any occasion for the entire year, while others have recorded hundreds of instances of detentions in cells.

According to the latest figures, West Yorkshire Police Force Area detained people 269 times under section 136 in a police cell, the highest number of all Police Force Areas. This was closely followed by Avon and Somerset (242), South Wales (192), Lincolnshire (173), Sussex (151) and Essex (110).

Conversely, Merseyside and Hertfordshire Police Force Areas did not use section 136 to detain people in crisis in cells a single time that year, while City of London, Leicestershire, West Midlands, Northumbria and Suffolk Police Force Areas all recorded using police cells as places of safety just a handful of times (either two or three) throughout the twelve month period.

The NPCC Lead for Mental Health’s figures show that not holding vulnerable individuals in cells is possible and achievable, particularly if there are sufficient health-based places of safety available.

The large reduction in the use of police cells has been a joint effort building on the Crisis Care Concordats in England and Wales, which are enabling different agencies, such as the police and NHS, to work together to improve support for people in mental health crisis. But it doesn’t go far enough - Mind believes that police cells are never an appropriate place for someone in mental health crisis, and is calling for a ban on their use.

Paul Farmer, CBE, Chief Executive of Mind said: “When you’re in a mental health crisis, you may become frustrated, frightened and extremely distressed. Your behaviour could be perceived as aggressive and threatening to others, but you desperately need support and compassion. Being held in a police cell and effectively treated like a criminal only makes things worse. Now is the moment to ban this damaging practice once and for all.

“At Mind, we hear from people left cold and hungry, unable to sleep from the noise from people in other cells, or kept in the dark because lightbulbs have been removed to prevent self-harming. People are routinely strip-searched, and deprived of personal possessions like mobile phones, which can have a dehumanising and isolating effect.

“In many parts of the country, police forces are showing us what is possible. If Merseyside and Hertfordshire police forces can entirely avoid detaining vulnerable people in police cells, so can the rest of England and Wales. We’re urgently calling on the Government and Welsh Assembly to ban the use of police cells for everyone – both adults and children – in a mental health crisis.

“Rather than holding people in cells, it’s far better to take them somewhere appropriate like a hospital. We know that health-based places of safety aren’t always available at present, but some resources are being made available for this to be implemented. The figures clearly show what’s possible – with some police forces never needing to take people in crisis to police cells, and others having to resort to this hundreds of times a year. It should never be appropriate to detain someone in crisis in a police cell.”

Inspector Wayne Goodwin, Force mental health liaison officer for Kent Police, said: “Kent Police believe that the use of police cells for those detained under the mental health act should be a never event. Cells are not appropriate places for anyone detained under the act and we know that their use can add to trauma of the crisis and potentially delay that person’s recovery. Police officers and staff are not experts in dealing with mental health crisis and although we will do our best for that person’s health and welfare, they can only receive the proper care they need in a health care setting.”

Xena, 45, is from Cornwall and has bipolar disorder. One afternoon in July 2013 she found herself on a bridge. As she was suicidal and in a public place, she called 999. The police turned up and took her to get her some help from mental health services, but they refused to help her because she’d been drinking alcohol.

They had no choice but to take her to a police cell at a station in Launceston, where she was strip searched and all her possessions were taken away. She was kept in a cell for roughly 12 hours. By the time she was released, it was 1.30am and she was 30 miles from home.

Xena says: “For me, being strip searched was the worst thing. I have an abusive background which is one of the contributory factors to my mental health problems. I begged them not to but they said because I’d been sectioned that they had to. The two female officers were nasty and rough. I was screaming and crying and they were telling me to shut up and let them get it over with. I was confused and didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t even call my husband to tell him what had happened.

“I can’t believe that vulnerable people are still being held in police cells at their time of greatest need. People in crisis need help, not to be criminalised.”

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