In an interview with the Today Programme last week, a young woman described her experience of being detained in a police cell under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983, which empowers officers to take individuals with a mental health problem to a place of safety’. Although police cells are only meant to be used as places of safety in exceptional circumstances, she was one of 9,378 people who were taken into police custody under Section 136 in 2011/12.
She was not critical of the police who she said treated her amazingly’ but of the fact that the only place that was available was not a hospital bed but a police cell, which she said was a distressing environment’ and a place for criminals not people who are feeling ill’. While not everyone detained under Section 136 shares her positive view of the police, there does appear to be a consensus that a police cell is not the right place to hold someone with a severe mental health issue.
This interview was part of the coverage of the launch of A Criminal Use of Police Cells’, the report of a joint inspection led by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary on the use of Section 136. This report, which has been criticised for not going far enough in its recommendations, is certainly not the first to grapple with this issue. This is a longstanding problem that is maybe now receiving more attention than it has in the past as police resources become increasingly scarce. So what can be done to make a real difference?
The biggest step-change would be achieved by simply addressing the lack of sufficient round-the-clock facilities that would enable the use of health-based places of safety instead of police cells. Until this gap is filled, supported by good multi-agency working arrangements that speed up the process of assessment and referral, police cells will continue to be used. While this is easier said than done, Police and Crime Commissioners – with their influence with other agencies locally and their seat on Health and Wellbeing Boards – are well placed to take the lead on this (as some have already realised). Success would not only free up police resources and help some of their most vulnerable constituents, but would also begin to demonstrate the value of this new role.
Failing this and given the lack of resources across the public sector this seems likely the police service should at the very least be required to formally monitor the use of section 136, like the health service do. Indeed it is puzzling that the joint inspection team, having drawn attention to the absence of reliable national data on the use of section 136 by the police, didn’t go on to recommend that this should be reversed. How can politicians make informed judgements about whether or not the law or policy needs to change in the absence of reliable information on the number of people detained in police cells under section 136 and the reasons for their detention? Sadly, like the abolition of the monitoring of stop and account, this looks like another example of the anti-bureaucracy ideology trumping the government’s own efforts to improve police accountability.