Like most UK cops who joined in the 1990s, I took my two-hours of mental health awareness out onto the streets with me after initial police training. For me, this meant patrolling and responding in one of the most deprived and diverse parts of a large UK city where MH related demands for the police were frequent and often serious.
6 or 7 of my first 10 arrests involved mental health issues; usually for the suspect, but one involved a victim who was targeted and I had a 136. In police custody, there was a poster on the wall for the ‘Diversion’ team: the magic phone number which lead to the emergence (eventually!) of mental health professionals and often they removed your suspect from custody under the Mental Health Act. “What happens after assessment or treatment if they’ve offended?” Not much apparently, they were all NFAd for the offence once sectioned – no further action.
My area was home to an old, Victorian mental health hospital and it was in the process of closing when I joined, only two wards remaining. Most of the building was unlit and I readily admit to being terrified when my tutor constable took me in there to deal with incidents – you could hear screaming echoing down empty corridors and it was like the set of a bad horror film. Psychiatric nurses would call for police assistance if they needed help to medicate or seclude patients. “Are we allowed to hold people down whilst nurses or doctors inject them?” No-one had any idea – it just seemed like the right thing to do, to help our colleagues in the NHS and keep both them and the patients safe. That’s what the police are for, surely?
To be fair to the staff, they were not working in a state of the art facility and were dealing with some very disturbed and violent people. Assaults on staff were at epidemic levels. “If a patient smashes a nurse’s face in, GBH standard, do they ever get prosecuted?” Not in the public interest, apparently: ever.
My education was broadened by dealing with some community MH jobs: another probationary constable and I were sent to an address to see if an AWOL patient had turned up at home. We established quite quickly she was in there, alright; we were outside and she wouldn’t open the door. Because she was absent from where she was legally obliged to be and because the hospital said she was a risk to herself, we shouted up, “Sarge, can we not just kick the door off and take her back there by force?” He had no idea. Neither did the inspector.
It dawned upon me very quickly – I didn’t have a CLUE what I was doing with this stuff and neither did anyone else.
One of those 10 early arrests included my first s136 job. A young chap in a fairly florid state, wandering in and out of traffic on an arterial route out of the city at rush hour, shouting at drivers who were bashing their horns and braking. We arrested him and searched him, recovering cannabis and a knife and as we were within visual distance of the A&E we walked him over. I had remembered that a ‘Place of Safety’ was “a hospital, a police station or anywhere else temporarily willing to receive the patient.” I had high hopes of a cuppa, if I’m honest. I’d already spent time in A&E pulling out drunks and other people who abused our A&E colleagues. Those people took a lot of grief in a demanding job and I hoped they thought we always supported them when they needed help. They’d realised that if you pour a hot drink down a young policeman he’ll hang around longer or will even come in just to take a sneaky break from patrol. All of this deters trouble in A&E.
How on EARTH was I to know that they and the rest of the NHS in my area had exempted themselves from the requirements of a Code of Practice, issued by the Secretary of State under the cover of law? “A&E is not a place of safety”, apparently. No psychiatric unit operated one, either. This confused me, I’d already learned that if you breach a police Code of Practice, sergeants and inspectors start pulling you aside for very awkward conversations you don’t enjoy. Yet here, the whole NHS in a major city WANTED the MHA Code breached and the A&E sister wasted no time in telling me. No cup of coffee for me and more importantly, no access to healthcare for the young bloke who was removed to the cells.
It was clear I needed to know more law and I started to ask questions.
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Since this blog began, the law of England and Wales, including the Codes of Practice to the Mental Health Act 1983 have been updated, several times. Always check the date of publication, displayed below; and cross-reference to current legislation and guidance when using this material as a reference guide.