Mentally ill people detained because they pose a risk to themselves or others are routinely taken to police cells rather than hospital - despite years of warnings against the dangerous practice, official figures reveal for the first.
Nearly 9,000 vulnerable people taken off the streets last year by officers using emergency powers under the Mental Health Act ended up in police stations across England. Official guidelines state police cells should only be used as a place of safety for mentally ill people in “exceptional” circumstances.
Yet these figures are undoubtedly an underestimate as they exclude all those arrested rather than detained using a Section 136, such as Sean Rigg, an acutely unwell man who died under arrest in Brixton police station in 2008.
These figures come amid growing concerns about the dangers of police contact for people with mental health problems. Around half of all deaths in police custody involve people with known mental health problems, according to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The figures, released by the NHS Information Centre, were described as “shocking” by Deborah Coles from the campaign group INQUEST.
Ms Coles told The Independent: “We know that police cells are dangerous and inappropriate places for people with mental health problems yet these shocking figures show that this is where they routinely end up. This should send shockwaves through government departments and get a decisive response.”
Simon Cole, the mental health lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said police cells were clearly not the right place for mentally ill people but officers often had no choice “These figures show mental health is currently making significant demands on policing. Better diversion and support could free up officers to fight crime, and more importantly ensure improved services for those who are ill.”
Andy Bell, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, said the NHS had to do more. “Health services must ensure there are suitable, properly staffed places of safety in every area, which the police know how to use.”
Other figures released by the Information Centre show that the total number of people compelled to accept psychiatric treatment continues to rise year-on-year.
Last year almost 48,600 people were detained in psychiatric hospitals in England against their will last year - a 5 per cent increase in 12 months.
There was an even bigger rise in the number of people subjected to involuntary treatment and living restrictions at home as the number of community treatment orders (CTOs) increased by 10 per cent to 4,200.
The use of the controversial CTOs – which were opposed by dozens of mental health and human rights organisations – is much more widespread than ever predicted by the government. The number of CTOs has grown exponentially since being introduced in 2008, doubling in just four years, yet the impact of the restrictive orders has yet to be properly evaluated.