Multiple mistakes by police in dealing with people suffering from mental illness could have contributed to dozens of deaths, an independent commission concluded today.
In a damning report, it demanded training for officers in suicide prevention to avoid vulnerable people dying in similar circumstances in the future. The commission also uncovered instances of people being brutally restrained and examples of prejudice towards the mentally-ill.
Its recommendations came after it examined the deaths of 50 people with mental health problems who came into contact with the Metropolitan Police over a five year period. Forty-five committed suicide and the other five died after being restrained by officers.
They included a musician, Sean Rigg, a sufferer from paranoid schizophrenia who died in police custody in 2008. An inquest jury ruled that officers employed “unsuitable” force against him during an “unnecessarily” long restraint.
The commission found “failures in systems, misjudgements or errors by individuals” in the cases it examined, as well as “discriminatory attitudes” towards mental illness and poor co-ordination with other agencies such as the National Health Service. The commission also heard that people with mental health problems felt they were often treated as criminals by officers.
Although the report focussed on deaths in London, the commission’s chairman, Lord Adebowale, stressed that its conclusions applied nationwide.
He said the capital’s officers spent at least 20 per cent of their time dealing with mental health problems, while Scotland Yard last year received more than 60,000 calls on the issue – more than reports of robbery.
The commission said its most disturbing finding was that police used “disproportionate” levels of restraint in several cases. It said: “It is at least questionable whether there was a need to take control with such force or in such numbers in any of the cases reviewed.” In one case, a man died soon after being restrained by 11 officers in hospital.
Scotland Yard’s call centre often made errors with “huge consequences” – sometimes fatal – in assessing the seriousness of incidents and passing information to officers.
“Frontline police were given incomplete, wrong information that led to treating something as a crime rather than a medical emergency,” it said.
“In several cases it was evident that police on the street lacked understanding of medical health issues, including vulnerability and adults at risk.”
It also found examples of vulnerable people being transferred in police vans instead of ambulances and received poor care while being held in custody.
The commission, which included academics, lawyers, police chiefs and medics, did not accuse officers of racism, but registered concern over the high number of young Afro-Caribbean men subjected to forcible restraint.
It made 28 recommendations for urgent action by the Metropolitan Police, including improved training of officers, ensuring the mentally-ill were treated with respect and regular oversight of standards by experts.
Lord Adebowale, who meets Home Secretary Theresa May next week to discuss the report, said: “The whole Metropolitan Police needs to take this seriously and this starts from the top. We cannot have a credible police force where one million Londoners are at risk of receiving a less than adequate service.”
He added: “If these recommendations are implemented, then we can prevent some of the tragedies that have occurred from happening in the future.”
Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who set up the review in September, said he broadly accepted its recommendations.
He said: “If one in four people in London need mental health service support, the need for greater understanding and effective partnership working is evident.”