Approximately half of all deaths in or following police custody involve detainees with some form of mental health problem. The IPCC is keen to get a better insight into the issues concerning mental health and custody. A key way in which individuals with mental disorder may have contact with the police is when they are in a public place and are believed to be in need of ‘immediate care and control’. In these circumstances individuals can be detained by police officers under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 and taken to a place of safety. A place of safety is defined as ‘hospital, police station, mental nursing home or residential home or any other suitable place’.
It has long been accepted that police custody is not a suitable place of safety. It has the effect of criminalising people who are in need of medical attention, can exacerbate their mental state, and in the most tragic cases can lead to deaths in custody. For the past twenty years it has been government policy that police custody should only be used as a last resort. Yet there has been no national data on the extent to which it has been used.
The IPCC has therefore conducted a research project which examined the extent and use of police stations as places of safety under section 136 of the Mental Health Act. The research collected and collated data from all 43 police forces in England and Wales for section 136 detentions in police custody in 2005/06. The data included the demographics of those detained, the length of time they were held in police custody, and looked at variations amongst police forces, identifying forces with high and low usage of section136 detentions. The research team then conducted interviews with police officers and health and social care staff in a number of case study site forces with low, medium and high rates of section 136 use in police custody. The case study sites aimed to explain the variation in the use of police custody as a place of safety.
The study sought to identify good practice and makes a series of recommendations for the police, health and social care organisations and other relevant bodies which we believe may help to minimise the use of police custody as a place of safety in the future.