Police Can No Longer Be “Plan B”

This week I have been told of a case which pretty much typifies the title of this blog.

The situation arose when a man called the police for help as his partner, a mental health sufferer with a range of diagnosis – who had not been taking her medication, was having “an episode.” She had taken a knife to her wrist but not cut it and had then barricaded herself into a room with a quantity of tablets.

Officers attended and very efficiently managed to persuade the lady out of the room and into verbal contact.

One of the officers called the out of hours mental health crisis team for assistance. It transpired that the lady in question has a long history of engagement with the mental health services. Judging by the comments from the male at the address there had been a recent and quite dramatic escalation of her condition. This incident was “the pinnacle.”

Officers asked whether someone from the out of hours service could come out or, better still, arrange for an urgent assessment of the lady in situ.

You will no doubt remember that the police have no powers to deal with this situation in a private place. No offences had been committed and what the lady needed was help and intervention.

The answer from the crisis team was “No.”

They would not be coming out. They were at full capacity. There was only one person working and they had to go to a pre-arranged visit. Their advice was to take the lady to her own home, leave her there and they would try and call her later.

Bearing in mind what had just happened and the reasons why the police had been called – does this seem an appropriate way of dealing with the situation?

The officers certainly didn’t think so but the crisis team were not to be moved. They were too busy to deal with this.

This kind of response is actually quite frightening. Here is an agency with absolutely no room for manoeuvre. No capacity to deal with predictable demand and certainly no capacity to deal with any new or emerging crisis. It even seems to lack the ability to prioritise a new, more urgent call, over a pre-arranged appointment.

And that was it. That was their involvement over. Leaving the officers at the scene with the moral, ethical and technical dilemma of what to do next.

Sir Peter Fahy made the press yesterday by quoting figures on the number of times police are called to deal with elderly dementia patients in a care setting because the staff do not have the ability to cope. It made frightening reading.

It is not just limited to these situations either. Police are frequently called to mental health hospitals to restrain patients for the same reasons.

One of the most commonly heard quotes from agencies when they ring for assistance is “it is our policy to call the police.”

Well – it may very well be YOUR policy to call the police but the time has come for the police to assess whether it will be their “policy” to respond.

I want to be clear that the police service should always respond to genuine calls for assistance and there will be times, in hospitals or care settings, where a situation does require police attendance.

What bothers me is that, in many cases, it seems to be the “go to option” by default.

By way of example – let us look at the number of times police are called to deal with teenagers reported missing from care homes.

This is a tricky one because I genuinely believe that “every child matters” but it is the ease with which the callers want to hand responsibility to the police which concerns me.

Having heard the “it’s our policy to report it to the police” line the next question should be “why?”

The answer is so that the person can say they have handed responsibility to someone else.

In cases where police assistance is *actually* required then this is not a problem but what about cases where a juvenile storms out in a strop and they call us as they are walking down the drive?

Last week I dealt with a case where the children’s home reported a 16 year old missing. Not uncommon for this troubled individual but the call takers were told very quickly that no-one from the home could assist as there were not enough staff on site to allow anyone to leave. They claimed it was not their responsibility to look for the child and, even though they had a very good idea of where that person might be, they would not go out to look. So they called the police – because it was their policy.

In the same week officers dealt with a case where a sectioned patient was reported as AWOL.

In this instance it was thought highly likely that the person would have gone to a relatives address. The hospital reported it to the police saying they were “not insured” to work off-site to recover him.

Police duly attended and the male escaped out of a window. The relative denied them being there but it was obvious that they were under some duress.

Later on I hatched a plan to try again.

My theory was that we believed the male was going to be there and we also believed that entry was likely to be denied or refused. This is a situation for which Section 135 (2) of the Mental Health Act was written.

It requires a warrant of entry and recovery. My plan was this – if EDT could obtain the warrant then I would supply sufficient officers to contain the premises and facilitate entry. A team effort I thought.

On contacting EDT they stated it was not their responsibility to obtain warrants and I should call the Crisis Team.

Knowing this to be wrong, I contacted the Crisis Team who were as confused as I was because they too knew it was an EDT matter.

They said they would call EDT and put them straight.

In actual fact – a Section 135 (2) warrant can be obtained by a police officer. I knew this but hoped that someone else might assist by getting the warrant and I would provide the staff to safely execute it.

No chance. EDT weren’t interested. After some wriggling they pointed out to the crisis team that police could obtain the warrant and so they weren’t going to.

So that is the hospital from which this person went missing AND the Emergency Duty Team refusing to assist in the recovery of a patient who is absent without leave.

Leave it to the police. Both then carried on with whatever it was they were doing beforehand.

As it turned out we did recover the patient – without a warrant – but through good policing skills and the person was returned to the hospital who then, initially, refused to accept him back because he was volatile.

We have talked in previous blogs about the infamous call to police at 4.45pm on a Friday outlining some urgent case which an agency now needs us to take on.

Usually because they “don’t do welfare checks.”

Even more frightening and now something which is happening with increasing regularity is this scenario:

“Ambulance are saying they don’t have anyone to send.”

And they don’t. They genuinely don’t but that doesn’t help police officers or the person who actually needs urgent medical assistance at all.

In all of these situations it is the police who are left to deal with the problem. It seems that other agencies are quite used to and quite comfortable with simply saying that they are too busy to assist.

Either that or they are equally comfortable with expecting the police to do something for them because it is their policy or they don’t have enough staff.

The situation is getting worse – it is happening daily in every local policing area in every force in the country.

Someone has to stand up and say “no”.

The police are a “can do” organisation and I don’t know a single officer who is comfortable with simply leaving a situation or ignoring something because we are busy.

The police potentially have a role to assist in any or all of the above situations but we are not “assisting.” We are being given and we are accepting full responsibility for them. Partly because it seems to be a cultural norm to involve the police and partly because – if we don’t – no one else will.

This cannot continue. We have been tasked to reduce crime. This is getting harder to do when so much police time is spent plugging the gaps elsewhere.

It is time to take a stance.

It is time to accurately measure this and push back.

It is time we tried to change the culture and ensure that other agencies put in proper contingencies instead of relying on the police as “Plan B.”


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12 responses to “Police Can No Longer Be “Plan B””

  1. David Smith says :

    You should really re-name this as “Police can no longer be Plan A” for that is what I’m afraid we actually are for these people.

  2. anon says :

    I can’t help thinking you might be missing the point here. The problem isn’t other agencies calling the police and then not doing anything themselves. The problem is the risk-averse nature of the police response, which seems to be, ‘We must be seen to be doing something. We will therefore take on the responsibility for this problem and all its associated risk.’

    Of course, when the police say ‘We’ they actually mean, ‘Uniform PCs and Sergeants working nights with no real training or background in this particular issue.’

    The police have to be clear about what they won’t do, rather than have a vague, open-ended commitment to do ‘whatever’.

    • nathanconstable says :

      A Royal Commission would help here

    • David Smith says :

      That’s true of a lot of calls we take, I’m afraid. There’s been plenty I’ve been sent to by the despatchers where the phrase ‘please go to…’ doesn’t have any real concept of ‘…and do…’ attached to it. There’s a feeling of ‘the call has been made so we must go.’ about a lot of our work.

    • Judy says :

      Thank God the police are risk averse. I don’t know how else they are expected to react when someone is putting themselves or others in danger. Mental Health Services seem happy to guess which people pose a ‘serious’ threat to themselves, saying that if someone really wants to take their life then it’s their choice. I’m glad the police don’t wait to try to find out which it is or how high the risk might be before they act, and don’t think that suicide is ever a rational life choice..

  3. sectioneddetection says :

    Happens a lot on my division. I usually tell them that yes we CAN get a warrant but would be unable to answer any questions the magistrate my ask so it would be best if they they got it. I also point out the codes of MHA codes of practice:

    22.13 The police should be asked to assist in returning a patient to hospital only if necessary. If the patient’s location is known, the role of the police should, wherever possible, be only to assist a suitably qualified and experienced mental health professional in returning the patient
    to hospital.

    Then I ask which qualified and experienced MH professional is coming with me!

  4. Mike Maynard says :

    This is exactly the situation that Independent Police and Crime Commissioners (IPCC) should be voicing their views on, a year ago these so called ‘independent’ public guardians replaced Polce Authorities to oversee the effectiveness and efficiency of Police Forces. The majority of them have done nothing, they are either failed politicians or those who aspire to becoming MP’s and see it as a stepping stone to Westminster. The Crime and Disorder Act 98 created the concept of ‘Responsible Authorities’ this is just the channel through which IPCC’s should be voicing their concerns over the lack of support for Police Officers in dealing with those at risk from Mental Health, in doing so the IPCC’s in their role as participants on Community Safety Partnerships should be focusing more on the recommendations of such reports as the ‘Bradley Report’ instead they draw attention to themselves by referring to police officers as ‘feral’. I refer to a recent article in the Daily Mail where Dyfed Powys Police and Crime Commissioner Mr David Salmon voiced his opinions on the ‘pleb-gate’ affair, Mr Salmon would be far better off spending his time in engaging with partner agencies in the support of the police in the difficult role that they do when picking up the pieces of ‘partner agencies. M. B. Maynard Police Sergeant (Retired ) DPP.

  5. pcsouthwest says :

    I think we’ve been banging this drum for years now but sadly the situation is not improving but getting worse. The cuts to the public sector and the more for less culture we have been pushed into means less resources for all. Like you say there is a can do attitude in our organisation that makes us the easy option for others less willing.
    This is only one of many areas we should be distancing ourselves from.

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