On Tuesday I spent some time visiting the custody unit in Melksham. I feel it is important for me to visit different police stations, see how the operational side of policing is working and meet staff.
On this occasion my visit was prompted by a report I received from one of our Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs). Part of my role as commissioner is to ensure that Wiltshire Police is transparent and accountable through me to the public. We are in the process of establishing a number of independent panels to scrutinise the work of Wiltshire Police and help us to implement good practice. One of these is the Independent Custody Visitor Panel.
ICVs are members of the community, who volunteer with the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner and, once trained, visit custody units unannounced to check on the welfare and conditions of people who are detained.
Last week one of our ICVs highlighted to me a visit she had just made to Melksham. I am pleased to say the ICV was not concerned about the treatment by Wiltshire Police of the detainee. She was questioning if custody was the right place for this particular detainee.
The female was being held in custody because, following her arrest, it had become apparent to officers that she was unwell. She was having a mental health crisis and needed medical care and support. When someone is detained by the police and identified as being unwell, officers can no longer continue with their investigation until the person is well enough for them to do so. The priority for custody staff is to get that person the medical help they need.
So I was concerned to hear that the female detainee had been kept in a police cell overnight and in to the next day because no hospital beds were available. I decided to visit Melksham Custody to see if I could understand what it might be like to be in that person’s situation. Although it is clean, light and airy, it is not a pleasant place to be (and that is no reflection on the dedicated custody staff), but then no custody unit is.
Taking off my shoes and socks, jacket, tie and braces I sat on the bed in a cell trying to imagine what it must be like to be there for up to 24 hours, like some of the detainees who have recently spent time there under the Mental Health Act. Imagine sitting in a cell with nothing to do and in a fragile mental state. It must be quite a lonely place to be. Particularly when the only reason you are there is because you are mentally ill. It is certainly not the right place for someone in need of treatment.
Regular updates from the Force Mental Health Liaison Officer tell me these are not isolated cases both locally and nationally. I sit on the Wiltshire and Swindon Health and Wellbeing boards and regularly raise this issue. Together with partners we are working to find a solution. This cannot come soon enough.
As mental health week draws to a close I can assure readers that I will be continuing to press the case for improved NHS services, so those suffering a mental health crisis in Wiltshire have access to a hospital bed as soon as they need it.