I was walking through a supermarket earlier today and music was playing over loudspeakers.
I found myself whisked back to the 80′s as I was listening to the refrains of The Pet Shop Boys and their track “West End Girls.”
In the first verse are the following lyrics:
“You think you’re mad, too unstable
Kicking in chairs and knocking down tables
In a restaurant in a West End town
Call the police, there’s a madman around”
Now I haven’t heard this track for a good number of years and it was telling that as I heard that last line my mind immediately got taken to work and all the calls we get about people having a mental health crisis.
“Call the police there’s a madman around.”
It’s a damning indictment of society really that it is the police who are so frequently called to deal with these issues.
If the call comes from a member of the public and relates to someone having a mental health crisis in public then, of course, I would expect that person to call the police and for the police to attend.
Having got home and looked at Twitter I saw something on my timeline which not only struck me as serendipitous but far far too familiar.
The tweet came from @Mrajbridge who works in the field of mental health. It said this:
“You just advised the carer of a #mentalhealth patient who has declined to take their anti hypertensive medication to call the #Police. WHY?!”
There then followed a series of replies which unanimously questioned whoever it was who had made this decision.
Some people seemed surprised.
This type of call is all too common. I can think of many occasions where a concerned relative has called us to say that someone they love is in crisis and needs help urgently.
“Why are you calling the police?” We ask.
“Because Social Services told us to” they reply.
Every single day, almost without fail, my station will receive a call about someone who is threatening suicide and could we go and check on them.
These calls frequently come from care providers.
Not to mention the reports of people who are being reported missing by the same care providers because they haven’t seen or heard from someone in a while. Invariably they are concerned because they are “suicidal.”
A few months ago we were asked to conduct a welfare check on a lady who is well known to police and mental health teams. She is a recluse and doesn’t answer the door.
She had failed to answer the door to a team who had gone round to see her. So they left and called us. It was late on a Friday afternoon – again not unusual.
I have dealt with this lady before so I looked up her recent history. It turned out that we had been called in identical circumstances a week previously and the week before that.
On both occasions we had attended and remained until we gained a response from the lady inside. Usually it was telling us to leave her alone. She never came to the the door once. She just shouted through it. Eventually.
What struck me was that the following pattern had emerged:
Social work team attend.
Confirm she is alive to Social Services.
Social work team attend a week later.
Confirm she is alive to Social Services.
We were just about to enter into this cycle for the third time but it so happened that I was on duty and intervened.
I called the carer back and the conversation went something like this:
“Why are we being asked to go?”
“Because we can’t get her to reply”
“That has happened twice previously in the last 14 days. This is the third time. Is there anything different with the circumstances on those occasions and today?”
“No sudden escalation of any kind or additional concern?”
“So why are we being asked to go?”
“Because we are concerned about her.”
“But this has happened twice already what have you done since the last visit?”
“So the overall plan is to just keep going round there, knowing she won’t answer the door and then leaving and calling us?”
“Well – no…”
“Well – that’s what the plan looks like to me. What would you have done if she had answered the door?”
“Tried to assess her.”
“And obtaining a warrant isn’t an option?”
“Not at this time on a Friday.”
“So if your team went round there this morning – why are you calling the police at ‘this time on a Friday’ “
And on it went.
Suffice to say I refused to send officers. This sent the social worker into some degree of panic and they tried to suggest that it would be on my head if she was harmed.
I pointed out that it most certainly wouldn’t be “on my head” as they had known about the problem for three weeks and if they were THAT concerned they could have intervened at any point between then and now.
I politely suggested that they were trying to pass responsibility onto the police and that I was not accepting that responsibility.
We have had other discussions where someone has been in evident crisis in their homes. They have rung their mental health worker and perhaps made bizarre or generally threatening comments along the lines of “I am going to kill someone.”
At this point we usually get called BY the mental health teams. They will ask us to go around and deal with it.
“Deal with what?”
“Well – arrest them for making threats.”
Oh really? There is no such offence by the way – not in these circumstances anyway.
No – the correct thing to do is:
1. For the MH worker to recognise that it’s a crisis
2. Obtain a warrant under Section 135 Mental Health Act
3. Attend the scene (with police if necessary) and assess whether the person requires Sectioning.
When I say it’s the “correct” way – it is, in fact, the only proper and legal way of dealing with a situation like that.
Instead – they call the police who have no powers to deal with it but now have a responsibility to do something with it.
Using “breach of the peace” at Common Law or arresting for “threats” are either powers which are inappropriate or do not actually exist. It is an utter abuse of legislation.
We are back to the situation where the individual in crisis needs a CLINICAL intervention – NOT a CRIMINAL one.
It appears to have become common place to simply ring the police and ask them to deal. Other agencies are actually surprised when we say “no.”
It has become a cultural norm.
Social services are referring people to the police and / or they are ringing the police directly with a range of things which really are not police matters at all.
All too frequently officers are just attending out of habit. Only those of us who have spent some time researching our powers in this area are alert to it and able to intervene.
The strategic solution to this problem is for a fundamental overhaul of Mental Health provision and an ability for them to be able to respond rapidly to an immediate crisis.
I have talked before about what I would do in this area. Look to create a specialist multi-agency team working 24 hours a day and with the capability and capacity to respond immediately.
At the moment you have a team working 24 hours a day with capability and capacity but they lack the training, expertise and powers to be effective. They are over-used and misused. In the vast majority of cases they shouldn’t be being called at all.
They are called “the Police” and you have to ask why they are being so routinely asked to deal with what is and always will be a medical emergency.