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Police detaining fewer people displaying mental illness, figures show


People displaying mental health problems in public were held in police cells on more than 4,500 occasions in the last year, a fall of almost a third compared with the previous year, figures show.

Police custody was used to accommodate individuals held under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 4,537 times in 2014/15, down from 6,667 times, according to data collected from police forces in England and Wales.

Last month the home secretary, Theresa May, announced a crackdown on the practice, telling police officers at their annual conference in Bournemouth: “Nobody wins when the police are sent to look after people suffering from mental health problems. Vulnerable people don’t get the care they need and deserve, and the police can’t get on with the job they are trained to do.”

Section 136 allows police to take people to a place of safety when they are in a public place. They can do this if they think the person has a mental illness and is in need of care.

The number of times people aged under 18 were taken to police custody under section 136 fell from 256 to 161, a 37% reduction, and the total use of the rule by police fell 11.5% to 23,128.

The declines follow a government announcement that it would legislate to prohibit the use of police cells as “places of safety” for those under 18 and reduce the current 72-hour maximum detention period for adults.

The Home Office said the figures showed “encouraging progress” but “in some areas there is still a long way to go”.

A spokesman said: “The home secretary is clear that the right place for a person suffering a mental health crisis is a bed, not a police cell, and the right people to look after them are medically trained professionals, not police officers.”

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Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, said the mental health charity wanted to see a continued downward trend.

“Police cells are not an appropriate place for people in crisis,” he said. “Often people end up in police cells because there is no health-based alternative. The NHS must increase the provision of suitable alternative places of safety to reduce the numbers still further.”

Christine Jones, lead for mental health and policing at the National Police Chiefs Council, which compiled the data, said: ”People experiencing a mental health crisis are not criminals. Nor are police officers and staff medical professionals. Those who are urgently unwell, whether physically or mentally, should be taken to a health-based setting to receive the right care and support. It’s unacceptable for anyone, of any age, to end up in a police cell because the appropriate mental health services are not available.”

The detention in police cells of those experiencing mental health crises who are not suspected of any crime has been controversial. Last month the Home Office announced up to £15m of new funds to provide alternative facilities in hospitals and health centres.

“The government will provide the bed and the funding that is needed to stop that happening,” said May, whose new policing and criminal justice bill announced in the Queen’s speech last month sets out to “ensure better outcomes for those experiencing a mental health crisis”.

The data showed wide regional variations in the use of police cells, from no instances in some areas to hundreds in others. Sussex had the highest total number of instances, with 765 in 2014/15.

A spokesman for the force said there was a downward trend in the practice in recent years. He added: “Once police custody ceases to be a routine place of safety then all people detained by police under the Mental Health Act, unless exceptional circumstances prevail, will be taken to other places of safety for their assessment.”

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