Setting You Up To Fail

Imagine this: you are the parent of a 19yr old who has asked to borrow the car because they are going out to meet friends on a Friday night.  You agree to this but point out you will be in bed before they are home because you have an early start at work.  At some point in the middle of the night you hear a car pull up outside, a door slams shut and you hear the door of the house open.  There is a bit of noise as you hear someone come up the stairs and then everything goes quiet.  You drop back off to sleep.  When you get up at 6am, your car is not on the driveway.  You try to rouse your 19yr old, you can tell they smell strongly of alcohol and cannot immediately account for the car’s whereabouts.

There are (at least) four situations that fit these facts:

  1. Your son / daughter decided to have a few drinks.  Forgetting you needed the car for work on a Saturday, they decided to get drunk with their mates and left your car in the pub car park and got a lift home.  Because they are fairly well-oiled, securing this information is proving difficult – no criminal offence involved, at all.
  2. After arriving home with your car, they helped themselves to your vin rouge once home and went to bed.  The car was stolen off your driveway overnight – a vehicle theft.
  3. After having a drink whilst out, they brought the car home and drank precociously from your single malt collection.  During the night, someone broke into your house via an insecure window, stole the car keys and took the car – a burglary.
  4. Your son / daughter drove the car home after drinking themselves over the limit and drank more when they got home after being threatened with violence for the car keys on the driveway.  They didn’t tell you immediately because they knew you’d be outraged that they drove whilst over the limit and were going to think up a story in the morning – a robbery.

Now – imagine this: you ring the police, on the local non-emergency number.  You say you need to report that you think your car has been taken.  The operator asks how?  You say your are not sure: your son / daughter took it out last night; you went to bed, they came home late and when you got up the car is missing.  Your son / daughter can’t tell you how at the moment.

The operator won’t take your report – not only do they want confirmation that a criminal offence has actually occurred, they ask you to establish whether it was a burglary, a theft or a robbery and ring back.  You point out that you don’t know the difference and they decline to be any more helpful.  Moreover, they ask you when you ring back, to contact the burglary squad, the vehicle team or the robbery squad, directly.  What they don’t tell you, is that the burglary, robbery and vehicle detectives do not take direct calls from the public.

This can be what happens to the police when they are handling what they think might be a person suffering from mental health problems.

I have been in several conversations with NHS clinicians and managers, where it was hoped that Place of Safety provision in an area could be separately set up for Adult MH, learning disabilities and CAMHS.  Apparently, it is the role of the police to know which category a person fits into and to remove the person to the appropriate facility, having decided first whether or not the person might need to go to A&E for any ‘urgent physical healthcare requirements’.  Whatever that means.

How on earth would a crime victim be expected to know the actual, legal difference between burglary or robbery; or a police officer between a mental health problem and a learning disability?  What if the person detained s136 has a learning disability AND a mental health problem (co-morbidity)? – sometimes it can take fully qualified senior psychiatrists 28days under s2 MHA to work out the answer to that one.  After all, your robbery can also be a burglary in certain circumstances – who do we report that to?!

Obviously, the answer is not to request people to operate too far outside their area of competence.  Victims have got the right to ring the police, even if they just think they are victims and it is the role of the police to gate-keep that and either deal with it, or refer it to the appropriate specialist team.  It may transpire that they are not victims at all, but it may take the police to work that out.

The police have got every right to request an ambulance’s support to help navigate the medical maze – not least because it is a requirement from the MHA Code of Practice (Wales) – but also, where there is some genuine doubt about the wisdom of proceeding to a cell block or place of safety because of ‘physical healthcare concerns‘, it is not illegal to seek medical opinion via an Accident & Emergency department as the 24/7 gateway to the NHS.  In fact the opposite is true.


One thought on “Setting You Up To Fail

  1. Good analogy to illustrate the problem.

    I have direct experience of a complex situation when the guy in the downstairs flat kicked off (again) and needed both police restraint and MH attendance. Happily, the attending PCs calmed him down then arrested him but understood that they were dealing with an ill person rather than an obnoxious noisy drunk. The attending officers also took the trouble to ask me and the other neighbours about him and his behaviour. He could have been charged with attempted arson (paraffin drenched mattress against the building wall) and sent down the criminal route.

    The police had clearly judged that he was more likely to be mad than bad so when he was released from police custody after he’d sobered up and returned to the flat, a complete MH team (with police support) came to Section him and remove him to a place of safety whence he was sent to be alcohol detoxed and have his diagnosis and medication sorted out properly after ten years of revolving door and ineffective treatment.. Eventually he was returned to the community and rehoused elsewhere and as far as I know is staying well with the help of the MH services.

    I mention this as a civilian because I was a close observer of a situation that was resolved happily for all concerned by the clear and correct following of procedures from the 999 call onwards. I heard later from the man’s mother that she’d been trying for years to arrange the right help for her son.

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