The picture of Katie Simpkins huddled beneath a blanket in the back of a Wiltshire Police car has understandably caused concern to the public, writes Angus Macpherson, Wiltshire PCC.
Many people will also have been moved by the interview her husband Tristan gave to the BBC about how, in the midst of a mental health crisis, Katie found herself being taken into police custody.
I have said it before and I will say it again: custody is simply not the right place for someone in a mental health crisis.
I must stress that this is not a criticism of the officers involved. As Mr Simpkins makes clear: “It wasn’t their fault they couldn’t get a bed, but these officers were all really lovely with her”.
My concern is that Katie was in a health facility – the minor injuries unit at Trowbridge Community Hospital – but that staff there called the police in the absence of a so-called “crisis bed” being available.
She was then detained under section 136 of the Mental Health Act and spent hours in custody at Melksham before an NHS bed was available. As the bed eventually promised turned out not to be free, she ended up in the police car and officers looked after her until the bed was available.
This is not an isolated incident. Wiltshire Police says such incidents are happening once or twice a month.
After a previous episode of a woman who needed specialist care being held for hours in custody, I decided to see for myself what it is like to go through such an experience.
I surrendered my belt, tie and shoes and watched from inside the cell as the heavy door clanged shut. It was a miserable, claustrophobic place to be and I was only in there a short while. I tried to imagine how much worse it would be for someone who needed expert medical care in a place of safety.
Wiltshire Police receives hundreds of mental health-related calls each month. I am helping to fund a triage service in which mental health nurses work alongside call handlers in the control room at our Devizes HQ. They are on duty from breakfast time to midnight and they do all they can to ensure that vulnerable people our officers are dealing with receive the care they need.
I am told that funding is now in place for a further three “crisis beds” in the Wiltshire Police area. What we need now is for the relevant health and local authorities in Wiltshire and Swindon to agree on where those beds should be sited.
I hope, for the sake of people like Katie and Tristan Simpkins, that a decision is reached very soon so that custody can be reserved for people who deserve to be there.
Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police Mike Veale has released the following statement on the subject of people with mental health problems being held in police custody:
“There has been a lot of media interest in a recent incident involving a young woman who was taken into custody by Wiltshire Police because she was suffering from mental health problems.
“I support the position taken earlier today by the Police and Crime Commissioner Angus Macpherson and wanted to share my own views on the issue.
“This one incident has shone a light on a problem police forces up and down the country are dealing with day in, day out. And I am hoping that this interest will allow us to draw a line in the sand and take a stand on what is and is not acceptable for people struggling with mental health issues.
“Let me make this clear, custody is there for police officers to detain criminals. Patients should not be treated as prisoners. A police officer is not the appropriate person to be dealing with a vulnerable member of the public who has an illness and poses a real risk to their own health and wellbeing. A police cell is not the appropriate place for someone struggling with these complex problems to be held. They are ill, frightened, vulnerable and very often traumatised and a police custody cell should not be used in these ways. However, people who are unwell need to be kept safe and we will always be there to do our best in these complicated circumstances, to protect them in a caring and professional way.
“My police officers and staff face difficult, stressful and sometimes dangerous situations every day. Much of this is part and parcel of the job, but they are not medical or mental health professionals. They are not trained to provide specialist care to people with complex problems. They don’t know the background of these people, their medical history or their personal details. And very often the people we are trying to protect have had many mental health interventions where other organisations will know the true extent of the risk their patients pose. They will know best how to deal with these complex issues.
“Just this week there has been numerous incidents involving people with acute mental health problems, where the responsibility for dealing with them has been unfairly placed on the shoulders of the police. It includes this incident with the young woman in Melksham, another where a man had to be held in a cell for more than 48 hours because there was no mental health care facility available for him, and another just last night when officers spent over an hour persuading a 17-year-old girl who was having a schizophrenic episode to come down from the roof of a car park, only to be told that there were no beds available for her anywhere in the county.
“These issues have always been here for the police, and not just in Wiltshire, but are becoming more acute as austerity bites and there is increased pressure on social care and health care services. I want to take this opportunity to call on all senior colleagues across our partner agencies in Swindon and Wiltshire to discuss what we are going to do to resolve these issues. I believe it is time to put the public first, stop the silo working, and discuss urgently what we as partner agencies and as leaders of these agencies are going to do to stop these long-term and complex problems.
“Finally, as with all public services, all our frontline colleagues should be acknowledged for the fantastic service they provide in what is an ever-increasingly difficult landscape where resources and budgets are diminishing whilst the demand on their services increases.”