An article printed in Police Oracle on Thursday the 17th June 2013 has once again raised the topical debate of police officers and mental health patients.
The more articles I read on the subject the more I feel that this debate is aimed at the wrong group of people, front line officers. Police officers are trained to do an extremely difficult and demanding job and are led ultimately by their senior officers at ACPO level and the Home Office. Articles that are written and published criticising the way in which they carry out their job are nearly always aimed at the front line.
The Police Federation lead on mental health issues, Kevin Huish said that;
"Mental health professionals receive specialist training in the control and restraint of mentally ill patients and have powers to sedate them. Officers are only trained to subdue, restrain and arrest violent people"
In a submission to the Home Office he said that police officers should not be called to mental health premises to assist in the restraint of aggressive or violent patients.
He told PoliceOracle.com:
“People in mental healthcare settings are ill and are not always in control of their actions but all should still be treated with dignity and respect by all professionals who come into contact with them. It is not always easy and frequently very difficult but that is why mentally ill people have been sectioned in the first instance and those caring for them are fully aware of this.”
I am acutely aware that within all these articles is a deep sense of understanding now by everyone concerned in mental health that a need for further training is necessary and indeed warranted. This training however, is needed by more than just police officers. It is needed by the senior officers leading the police to understand how and what type of training is going to be most useful to their front line officers.
It is needed by the mental health workers themselves to understand how the police operate and to improve bilateral working agreements.
Agreements such as where police can take people if they have been detained under section 136 of the Mental Health Act and not simply to the nearest cell, which for those who don’t know is sometimes THE ONLY place they can be taken where they will be safe. This is not because it makes life easy for the police but because they have no where else to take them and it is considered to be a place of safety in terms of preventing further harm occurring to the subject.
Training is not always consistent across the mental health profession and I have found myself on many occasions working with some who have received very little in the way of dealing with subjects that become aggressive. The police are only called if they cannot be restrained safely by staff and to prevent them from harming themselves or others including staff.
The other issue is sedation. This can only be administered by certain staff and it is not always possible for sedation to be delivered straight away. To simply state that staff have been trained to restrain and sedate mental health patients is not accurate. It depends on many more factors than this.
Agreements need to be reached locally on speeding up the process of assessment so that if the subject has to be taken to a police station, they are there for the shortest possible time. Even better would be a room within custody that was secure but didn’t look like a cell. An environment that would cause the least amount of stress to the subject. If police are indeed dealing with the amount of people highlighted by the media in recent weeks, surely this is justified.
Agreements need to be reached locally on finding suitable alternative places of safety. I stress locally because to work on a national level would take too long to implement and this work needs starting now.
Finally officers need to be more aware of how certain mental health conditions can cause different affects in a subject. It is unreasonable to expect officers to know everything and work towards a degree in mental health but sometimes this is what we seem to ask from them.
All the presentations I have delivered involving police officers have been warmly received and taken seriously. The police are always happy to learn how to improve their services to the public but are often upset and frustrated by the criticism they receive when they are only doing what they have been trained to do.
The officer safety model which is their manual of training has given them a method of working and they are told that as long as they follow the officer safety model they will be supported if a complaint is made against them. Restraint and arrest training is delivered in a way that is not always best practice when it comes to dealing with mental health subjects and this is not the fault of the officers but the fault of the way in which they are trained.
This is what needs to change and this should be what is concentrated on first. Yes there are those who will be the exception within the police that will over step the officer safety model of training but those should be treated as isolated incidents and dealt with individually and not taken as how the wider police family operate.
I have had to call the police on several occasions throughout my career as a psychologist and I have always be grateful to the officers who have come to my aid. I can name twice as many positive incidents of police involvement as the media can negative ones and its time that we concentrate on getting on with who needs what training rather than continuing a debate that everyone is in agreement with and has been for some time.