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A Criminal Use of Police Cells?

The use of police custody as a place of safety for people with mental health needs

Police officers have many different roles: to protect life and property; to maintain order; to prevent the commission of offences; and, where an offence has been committed, to take measures to bring the offender to justice.

In the course of their work, police officers often deal with people suffering from mental health problems. If an officer believes that someone is suffering from a mental disorder in a public place, and that person is in immediate need of care or control, section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 (section 136) provides the authority to take the person to a “place of safety”, so that his or her immediate mental health needs can be properly assessed.

A person can be detained in a place of safety for up to for 72 hours while waiting to be examined by a doctor and interviewed by an Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP), who decides if treatment is needed, and, if so, whether it should be administered in a hospital or elsewhere (for example, at home, with care provided by a community mental health team).

The Code of Practice for England and the Code of Practice for Wales each state that a police station should be used as a place of safety only “on an exceptional basis”, or “in…exceptional circumstances”, respectively. However, data, previous studies and national joint inspection work of police custody provision show that, in some areas, police custody is being regularly used as a place of safety. For example, in 2011/12, more than 9,000 people were detained in police custody under section 136, while 16,035 were taken to a hospital.

Those detained under section 136 have not committed any crime; they are suspected of suffering from a mental disorder. They may be detained for up to 72 hours, without any requirement for review during this period. In contrast, a person arrested for a criminal offence may generally only be detained for up to 24 hours, with their detention regularly reviewed to ensure that it is still appropriate.

We wanted to examine why, despite guidance, codes of practice, and recommendations made in earlier studies, police custody continues to be used so frequently.