Senior officer calls for health service staff to take more responsibility

The police should no longer be forced to care for the mentally ill, one of Britain's leading officers said yesterday. Commander Rod Jarman, who chairs the Association of Chief Police Officers' mental health group, told The Independent on Sunday that the police were increasingly being left "holding the baby" when it came to looking after mentally ill people – something they are not trained to do – because health and ambulance services treated the issue as low priority.

Commander Jarman, who is also Scotland Yard's lead officer on mental health, said it was time to speak out about the national problem of mentally ill people being held in police cells because there is nowhere else to take them.

The IoS reported in August that as many as 200 patients a year commit suicide within two days of leaving police custody because the experience either tips them over the edge or they are not given the help they need.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission will release the details of an investigation into the problem in January. But detentions under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, when someone is arrested because they are a danger to themselves or others, rose in London by about 50 per cent, from 1,407 to 2,107 between 2005 and 2006. Nationally the rise is thought to be around 25 per cent.

Such people are being let down by the NHS, which is "not pulling its weight" in their care and treatment, Commander Jarman said. He went on: "We are always going to need power and ability to deal with those that are so distressed they are at risk to others and themselves. But they often have to go to police cells where they can be held for up to 72 hours in a cell designed for a criminal. That has huge implications for us in terms of staff costs.

"If proper places were up and running they could be taken there and assessed by people who are trained, rather than us ringing someone up in the middle of the night to get a doctor to do the assessment before we can move the patient."

Devon and Cornwall Police has told its health authority that from next September the mentally ill will no longer be held in its cells.

Commander Jarman added that the Government had provided health authorities with £130m to build centres but many had not taken the money because they could not afford to staff them.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "The Government agrees that a police station is not the ideal place to detain a mentally ill person. However, there may be occasions when it is the most appropriate place of safety or the only available facility."