When I was a young boy, I can vaguely remember my dear Godmother once saying something about calling the police if I was naughty, saying the police would “take you away”. Without missing a beat, I remember my mother responding quickly and firmly, “Don’t say that to him!” She went on to explain that the police do not, in fact, take kids away for being naughty; that she needed me to understand that a police officer is somebody I can go to for help if I was ever stuck or in trouble; and that she should never, ever say that to me again. WOW! 😳
It is probably this incident that accounts for my hatred of hearing adults say similar things to their kids. I’ve been known to be the policeman who kneels down next to kids and says, “What you’ve just been told isn’t true – we don’t take young children away from their parents for being naughty because police officers are there to help you and protect you if you’re in trouble.” I then usually explain my reasons to the parents and ask them not to do it in future, because they would probably agree that if I saw their child in danger, they would want them to ask me for help and they would expect me to give it. Hard to do that if the kids are running away, frightened of me.
So there’s a version of this in policing & mental health land and it’s occured enough times this week, in various scenarios, that you will have to let me get this off my chest!
WASTING POLICE TIME
A Twitter conversation this evening has revealed that @MindourMinds has documented six recent examples across England of patients being threatened with arrest for wasting police time, following apparent suicidality. This is not the first time I’ve heard of this and just to be crystal clear: it’s not the police threatening to arrest and prosecute patients – it’s apparently mental health professionals. I regret to confirm I have heard of one example of such a case being brought but, quite rightly (I’ve seen many of the legal papers) it was dropped at court for being fairly ridiculous.
Wasting police time is a criminal offence, of course: but it is highly unlikely that any incident of suicidality, including any attempt, would be considered an example of it. The legal definition is within s5(2) of the Criminal Law Act 1967, “Where a person causes any wasteful employment of the police by knowingly making to any person a false report tending to show that an offence has been committed, or to give rise to apprehension for the safety of any persons or property, or tending to show that he has information material to any police inquiry, he shall be liable.”
“Wasteful” … and “knowingly making a false report”. I admit I’m struggling to understand how a patient ringing mental health services and claiming to be suicidal is a waste of police time? Even if the CrisisTeam felt obliged to then seek an urgent ‘safe and well’ check because of concerns for that person’s immediate safety; how do you prove that this was ‘wasteful’?! But of course, finally: even if the patient actually had told a blatant pack of lies to encourage MH services to provide some kind of service or to facilitate admission to hospital – even then: it wasn’t the patient that rang the police and caused their ’employment’, wasteful or otherwise.
So it’s highly doubtful that there would be sufficient evidence to charge someone in these circumstances and I’ve only known it happen that once – it was dropped at court. How do you prove beyond all reasonable doubt that a person with mental health problems who claims to be suicidal, actually isn’t?! … you can’t prove a negative, as they say. Even then, there’s the requirement to show that person caused wasteful employment of the police by making a false statement if concerns by healthcare staff were serious enough that they rang the police to check on someone’s welfare?!
That’s the inherent contradiction here: the person ringing mental health services is either making a false claim in which case there’s no need to ring the police; OR they are not, in which case any deployment of the police by other services is not ‘wasteful’ because the concerns have been taken sufficiently seriously to warrant the police!
So: if you are a mental health professional wrestling with these issues, do consider what would need to be proved in a court in order to go down this legal route. Otherwise, if you make these kinds of threats, you risk looking silly if it turns out the police won’t take the action you were hoping for. Of course, CrisisTeams can call the police for any reasons they think legitimate. Whether or not the police then actually do as they’re asked, is quite another matter. It has been a feature of policing research for years (see Policing Citizens by PAJ WADDINGTON) to note that police officers do not have an inherent service-provider relationship with those who call them. They may assess a situation and take the view that the caller is in the wrong and the ‘accused’ is acting perfectly properly.
The police are NOT on anybody’s side – all circumstances turn on their individual merits.
THREATENING THE POLICE
Meanwhile, in another incident a service-user who has given permission for me to refer to this, was asked to attend a meeting without a clearly defined purpose. Suspecting it would be a Mental Health Act assessment for potential admission, they exercised their right not to attend, for various reasons that are important to them. When they failed to show up, a phone call followed in which the assessment was rescheduled and they were told that if they failed to attend on the next occasion the police would be called. This is not the first example of such a story I’ve heard over the years and I admit it also makes me feel very uneasy.
The problem with this is several-fold: firstly, what are they hoping the police will do? The obvious point to make is that any agreement by the police to attend the person’s home address means creating a situation in which the officers have no legal powers. So unless the request was being described as an urgent welfare check, necessary because of fears for someone’s life, the police could only ever knock the door and see what happens. Secondly, if there’s no reply, the officers would walk away; and if there is a reply, they can only convey the message that has already been conveyed. Thirdly, it is not a criminal offence to fail to attend an appointment with mental health services, even if it is a statutory assessment under the Mental Health Act; and officers would have no MHA powers because the person is in private premises. So why wouldn’t mental health services arrange to attend the address themselves whilst armed with a warrant to enable entry and an assessment that the police are then obliged to cooperate with?
Either way: it’s the implicit assumption that the police are a coercive arm of mental health services, to be threatened and deployed at their whim that bothers me here. It is fair enough to comment that a mental health professional may feel obliged to report a situation to the police in certain circumstances, even with their recommendation or request: but it’s ultimately for the police to decide whether the police get involved and on what legal terms. This is especially true where there are issues around criminal investigation and prosecution.
CARE AMIDST COERCION
There are various circumstances in which threatened coercion is inappropriate and this is made clear in the Code of Practice to the Mental Health Act. When it comes to the issue of patients being admitted to hospital, the Code specifies (para 14.17) that no-one should be told that if they do not agree to voluntary admission, they will be sectioned. The same applies (para 27.38) to voluntary patients who are already admitted: they should not be denied their right to leave a mental health ward under threat of being ‘sectioned’. The Care Quality Commission has referred to these kinds of situation as de facto detention – and they caution against such situations on both ethical and legal grounds.
Attempting to promote patient cooperation with a statutory assessment by threatening to call the police also creates a similar, but in my view, slightly the more sinister situation. No-one is obliged to cooperate with mental health services, unless the requisite legal frameworks are put in place, either to assess or treat their condition. If I, as a police officer, am to respect patient’s autonomy and liberty, I don’t really want to personify a threat made that I may disagree in which I’m refusing to play any part. It’s also not for mental health professionals to determine that a situation certainly amounts to an offence that could be prosecuted. I can’t help but recall the incident I encountered about a decade ago where a mental health nurse rang the police to complain of criminal damage by a patient only for my investigation to reveal unlawful detention by the nurse and the mental health services she worked for.
If the police are to be the guardians that many want to see them be, it means standing up for the rights and autonomy of patients as well as appropriately supporting mental health services. But as I said: the police are not actually on anybody’s side here!
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