Dear PC BROWN,
Welcome to West Midlands Police!
I can still remember very vividly how you felt on Monday 16th February 1998 as you walked through the door of Tally Ho! in Birmingham (don’t forget the exclamation mark) to join West Midlands Police, as you just have. Having wanted to be a police officer since we were 4 years old, anyone who knows us will know we were eager to get where you now are – to start work as a probationary police constable. Policing is not just what you now do, for a living – it’s who you already are. You’re about to take the roller-coaster ride of your life and you will love it – I still do, I’m still excited by the very idea of it. You will also be frustrated to tears precisely because of what it will come to mean to you by the time you’re neck-deep in everything. It will come to define you and it will change you to an extent you haven’t yet appreciated. Without a doubt it will afford you opportunities you couldn’t even dream about as you wonder what will start happening to you during this first week. One spoiler only: you will eventually stand in your uniform, over 5,000 miles away from where you are now representing your country in the sands and heat of Africa – so pay attention and brace for impact!
This note is about something your training won’t really cover it but it will be one of the issues which drives you to near-complete distraction once you start work in Winson Green and it’s something that could land you in trouble despite your best efforts to help people and do the right thing – you’re about to enter a world where almost everything you do is affected by considerations around mental health and wellbeing, involving a significant concerns about suicide, self-harm and human distress. One of the biggest responsibilities you will ever have is overseeing attempts to find and safeguard a man who is thought to be intent on setting himself on fire to die by suicide and he will do this in front of you. You will fail to stop him and remember his screams for some years beyond. By the end of this year, you’ll have worked out that 6 of the first 10 arrests you make will follow an incident where someone involved has mental health problems of some kind. You won’t know what to do with much of that and help may be limited. You’ll find some of the things you’re about to learn in the training classroom and are not agreed by your NHS colleagues and that includes stuff written in the law itself.
You will meet vulnerable victims who’ve been targeted by criminals because they’re vulnerable; you will meet some very vulnerable, unwell suspects who are lashing out because they’re frightened or stealing food just because they’re hungry; you will have to detain people purely for their own safety where no criminal offence is involved – and then you’ll realise something shocking: you and your colleagues are all too often on your own and your sergeant last had mental health training the year you were born – he’s a good bloke and will try to help, but he hasn’t got a magic wand or special insight. Various things you will later learn and which are written in the law, the statutory Codes of Practice and the national guidelines simply can’t or don’t happen where you will work – and pointing out that they’re written down in the law will make no difference at all at the time.
So here’s what I want you to know and want you to do as you navigate through all of this operational stuff around policing and mental health –
- Learn the law – read the Mental Health Act 1983 and (when it comes) the Mental Capacity Act 2005 – read the Codes of Practice for both. Do all of that twice at least and refer to it regularly after incidents.
- Be aware, mental health professionals you meet may not have done this – even the ones who are confidently telling you what the Act says.
- The first mental health nurse to give you legal guidance about a missing patient will get it wrong and why would you know that?!
- There is a massive difference between fear and anger – vulnerable people in contact with the police may often be frightened because you wield the authority of state to use coercive force and take away their liberty – those who have experienced this before may have been traumatised by it.
- So tread lightly there – just because someone is mentally ill and frightened doesn’t necessarily mean they are violent and dangerous. Over-policing and poor policing can increase the stakes and escalate situations to the point where fear and anger are too easily confused.
- Be nice, be calm, be lovely – sounds patronising and trite, doesn’ it?! As if somebody is about to break out the bean bags, the joss sticks and the camomile teas? In reality, it’s wise advice I wished I’d been given earlier because 23yr old me did naively believe that when a police officer told them to do things, those things largely happened and that when they didn’t, my training had implied I should be commanding and directive.
- Very little is usually gained by shouting, commanding and directing vulnerable people so only do it where there is something else to gain, like alerting other people to risks or securing urgent help not available without raising your voice to some degree.
- Otherwise, calm things down if you can; ‘de-escalate’ things, as the jargon goes; reduce sensory over-loading at jobs (by turning off or turning down things like blue lights and police radios; reduce officer numbers to the minimum actually needed even if some do remain out of sight, nearby) because all this stuff can be a problem.
- Try as hard as you can to contain situations and negotiate to influence and persuade rather than restrain people – obviously, these things can only be done to the extent that is consistent with managing immediate or wider issues of safety.
- And this includes the vulnerable person’s safety, the public’s safety where that is compromised, but also YOUR safety. You are entitled to go home from work entirely uninjured.
- So accept that you can only do these things to a certain degree and that you cannot always avoid using force or doing things that may naturally help de-escalate things. Try your best – but it still might fail and that’s not your fault because unknowable factors beyond your control can be in play.
- So when you do eventually find use of force is avoidable, be aware people with serious mental health conditions are more likely to have poorer physical health than the average and can have additional complications which make restraint even more precarious than it already was.
- Life expectancy for those of us with serious mental illness is 20yrs below the average and 75% of the adults with serious mental health problems starting experiencing those difficulties in childhood.
- Make sure you don’t present the professional frustrations you will develop about the ‘system’ to the vulnerable people you’re trying to help – it’s not their fault they ended up being ‘policed’ and they need your help whether or not this should have fallen to you.
- Discussions with healthcare professionals about your professional frustration should not be presented as arguments about police resources: they are not the most important thing to think about.
- We should all be doing things differently because this is what the public deserve and often what they are legally entitled to – ensuring a better service to the public around mental health may involve the police doing less or not being involved at all in some situations; but the police aren’t perfect and when it comes to crime investigation we need to get better and do more.
- It’s about doing the right thing.
- By complaining about sitting in mental health units, you can make vulnerable people feel unworthy of police help when they need it; by complaining about the negative impact on a vulnerable person of being stigmatised by over-policing you are fighting for their rights and their dignity.
- Complain about the public not getting what they deserve: as set out in law and in various kinds of guidelines or standards – apart from anything else, NHS organisations can’t then remind you that police time is not the most important issue and that they are more interested in ensuring effective care and patient’s wellbeing!
- We ensure patient wellbeing by ensuring we don’t over-police people who require better access to appropriate services: so argue for that as it pushes in exactly the same direction and it achieves the same outcome if it works.
- It reduces the ability of non-police professionals to point out: “the public are the most important thing of all” – they are and that is why we shouldn’t over-police them, unnecessarily criminalise and stigmatise them. If they are the most important of all, let’s agree to reduce unnecessary policing and to improve the quality of the policing we must unavoidably do because we have a serious role to play.
- Be aware in particular: local joint protocols on how the police should respond to certain situations are often junk and they could land you in the criminal court as a defendant. Some of your colleagues will experience this in the next decade in respect of the death of a man in Birmingham which hasn’t happened yet.
- One of many problems in that case and in several others you will formally review in the years to come is that local protocols or expectations in the NHS is that you will do things which are regarded as criminal and professionally negligent.
- Be aware: someone who is extremely resistant, aggressive and frightened whilst living with or experiencing serious mental health problems may well be presenting in a challenging way but it can still be as a medical emergency – you’ll need to know this and act accordingly.
- In 21yrs time, this fact will still be denied in order to encourage young police officers to remove people to police stations in those emergency situations where they may die – you will be held accountable for this unless you’ve tried to do the right thing.
- You cannot be obliged by a Chief Constable or by NHS partners to do something you alone are responsible for because of generalised policies or preferences which will put the life and the rights of your vulnerable person at risk.
- You must police according to law: this includes the law around negligence, health & safety and most importantly: human rights.
- You will spend your career working in a sub-optimal environment and need to understand fully how to discharge your own responsibilities in circumstances where others cannot be relied upon to discharge their organisations’.
- Frontline mental health professionals are rarely responsible for the pressures they are under – they are fighting like hell to make things work in a dysfunctional, highly political healthcare system which disadvantages mental health.
- Whatever the major problems are at the interface of policing, mental health and criminal justice, they are not going to be sorted out at 1am on a Tuesday by you and a frontline mental health nurse. This stuff needs bosses in rooms during the daylight getting deep and meaningful – you’re initially just trying to survive contact with this and helping the public to do likewise.
- This all means you may need to exercise the right to improvise and ask people to help with something despite them having said to your bosses six months ago that they’d really rather not or don’t agree they should – try to do the right thing by offering people who could help the chance to do the right thing.
- If they choose to turn patients and the police away that’s their decision and they can explain it but when it comes to you accounting for yourself, having tried to do the right thing could be the difference in securing that person’s welfare and the difference between whether you keep or lose your job (or worse).
- It’s not your job to absorb the consequences of other people decisions – don’t let them make you accountable for the impact of their decisions.
And finally, some general advice about police work overall. You are about to become much more cynical about human beings and the human race because you about to start playing high-stakes games where lives and liberty are risk and where people have a lot to lose. Egos are everywhere. Not everyone you meet is going to act with integrity and honesty, they won’t always tell you the truth so you’ll save yourself a lot of dark times if you work on the basis of these five broad principles –
- Accept Nothing
- Believe No-one
- Check Everything
- Document Everything
- Experts rarely stay in their lane and are rarely independent – by wary of them and refer back to points 1-4.
Egon Bittner once said, “Policing’s what happens when something’s happening that ought not to be happening about which somebody ought to do something now.”
So be somebody by securing knowledge of your profession and where it sits in society: in three days, you’ll meet a police inspector doing a degree who will give you the first pep talk of your career and point out that knowledge brings you confidence and confidence allow the responsible exercise of awesome authority and discretion. He is absolutely correct, so listen to what he says – and take opportunities to expand your operational experience by policing the real world, at night and in the dark. Be somebody by leading others, no matter what you rank or role.
Policing is important and done well is can transform lives and society more generally – and you are about to become a guardian, not a warrior. Your job is not “to fight criminals” it is to protect the fundamental rights of all people, and things absolutely includes by you bringing offenders to justice to ensure the rights of victims, but it encompasses so very much more. War analogies fail in policing because we are not trying to defeat and destroy people, we are trying to protect them – from each other and often from themselves.
Chief Inspector Michael Brown OBE
Winner of the President’s Medal,
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award
All opinions expressed are my own – they do not represent the views of any organisation.
(c) Michael Brown, 2019
I try to keep this blog up to date, but inevitably over time, amendments to the law as well as court rulings and other findings from inquests and complaints processes mean it is difficult to ensure all the articles and pages remain current. Please ensure you check all legal issues in particular and take appropriate professional advice where necessary.
Government legislation website – http://www.legislation.gov.uk