Mental health patients held in police cells due to lack of hospital beds

By agency reporter
December 11, 2017

A recent review highlights that police forces are making decisions to hold people with mental health issues in custody beyond the statutory maximum due to difficulties accessing hospital beds.

In cases where someone is brought to custody under arrest and is then diverted from the criminal justice to the mental health system as a patient, officers often have to decide to keep someone detained for their own safety, despite there being no power in domestic law to do so.

Custody sergeants report a very difficult legal dilemma in these cases – on the one hand they are obligated under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to release suspects once decisions are taken about the alleged offence or after 24 hours in custody, but they cannot continue to detain someone who is unwell unless an Approved Mental Health Professional has completed a legal application under the Mental Health Act.

A review by 21 police forces found 264 cases involved the police feeling obliged to keep someone safe by holding them in custody beyond the period allowed by custody law because of delays in finding a hospital bed. This likely represents a small fraction of the real picture – professional estimates suggest there could be more than 2,000 cases every year.

National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Mental Health and Policing, Chief Constable Mark Collins said, “Police officers have a duty to ensure that anyone brought into custody facing a mental health crisis is directed to a medical professional as soon as possible – it is a real concern that this is not happening quickly enough in potentially thousands of cases and each case potentially represents a violation of that person’s fundamental human rights.

“This is a legal problem that is emerging more frequently across the country so we want to work closely with the statutory regulator the Care Quality Commission to collect more accurate data and secure timely admission for people when they need it most.

“Recent figures have shown good progress by all police forces to reduce the number of cases in which a police cell is used as a place of safety under Section 136 so it is absolutely vital that we work closely with our partners to address this legal gap and work together to protect vulnerable and mentally ill people.”

Data was gathered from 21 police forces in England and Wales.

Of the 374 cases of arrests which led to a mental health assessment and a decision to admit the patient under the Mental Health Act:

  • 264 cases involved detention which exceeded the PACE 24 hour statutory maximum period without an application under the Mental Health Act being completed and a bed found.
  • 50 cases involved more than two hours to identify the bed, but the process was complete within the overall 24 hour period.
  • 60 cases involved a bed being identified in less than two hours of it becoming required.

A further 132 cases that were collected were not considered because of data quality problems due to this being the first time this data has been requested.

The study also flagged examples of deep concern where an individual had been detained for 97 hours (four days) and another of an adult with learning disabilities who was held for 137 hours (six days) before a specialist bed was identified.

* National Police Chief's Council http://www.npcc.police.uk/Home.aspx

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