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    Police Watchdog: Prime Minister Theresa May Should 'Hang Her Head in Shame'

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    Five mentally ill people phoned London's Metropolitan Police a total of 8,655 times in 2017, a figure official watchdog suggests reflects how police have become the "default" public service for dealing with mental health issues - a development potentially putting vulnerable lives at risk.

    Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Service concluded the UK's mental health system was "broken" after discovering the Met receive a mental health-related call every four minutes, and an officer is sent to respond to one every 12 minutes. It also found the police, not the ambulance service, are called out for half of mental health-related calls.

    The report says the police service is doing a good job in difficult circumstances, but expresses grave concerns over whether the police should be involved in responding to mental health problems at current levels, and demands a "radical rethink" to what has become a "national crisis".

    "Police officers naturally want to respond and do their best to support vulnerable people when they ask for help. But we cannot expect the police to pick up the pieces of a broken mental health system. Over-stretched and all-too-often overwhelmed police officers can't always respond appropriately, and people in mental health crisis don't always get the help they need. People in crisis with mental health problems need expert support — support that can't be carried out in the back of a police car or by locking them into a police cell. All too often, the system is failing people when they most need help," HM Inspector of Constabulary Zoë Billingham said.

    ‘Damning' Findings

    Responding to the "damning" report, John Apter, National Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, welcomed the "frank assessment" and said the Prime Minister and Home Secretary "should hang their heads in shame".

    "[The report] acknowledges we are the service of last resort, the organisation which cannot refuse to go when we are called, the people who fill the 5-9 gap left by other agencies and that is placing an ‘intolerable burden' on police officers. The government's austerity policies have led us to this dire state. I hope the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary read this report and hang their heads in shame at the situation they have not only created, but were warned about on numerous occasions. It is not right for anyone — officers or the public — that the police should be responsible for the safety and welfare of people that other professionals would be better placed to deal with. We're police officers not social workers or medical experts," Apter said.

    Concerns have been expressed for many years by health professionals and humanitarian organizations over the increasing prevalence of law enforcement in dealing with mental health concerns due to cuts to public health budgets.

    INQUEST — a charity supporting bereaved families of individuals who've died during or after contact with police — have long-documented how police are routinely relied upon to deal with incidents well outside their sphere of understanding, expertise or experience — and the public are actively advised to consider police the first resort in many situations when they don't seem an immediately obvious or proportionate way of resolving an issue.

    As a result, officers are ever-frequently thrust into scenarios they don't understand or know how to control — and their reflex response is often to suppress any disturbance or threat with physical restraints, significantly raising the risk of encounters turning lethal. Were the British state were to invest resources in a public health rather than criminal justice response, the charity suggests there'd "more likely than not be a sizeable reduction in custody deaths.

    Tragic Cases

    A palpable example of the fatal potential of police is provided by the death of Thomas Orchard. One morning in October 2012, while he was in the grip of a schizophrenic episode, officers were called to Exeter city centre due to his erratic behaviour.

    He was arrested on suspicion of committing a public order offence, and taken into custody. While detained, Thomas was handcuffed, bound in leg restraints, and a thick padded strap fixed across his mouth and nose. The seven-inch wide Emergency Restraining Belt is designed to bind legs or arms, but was used to prevent him spitting at or biting officers — it also prevented him from breathing.

    Just over an hour after reaching the station, Thomas was found unconscious in his cell. He was eventually pronounced dead at hospital, after attempts to resuscitate him failed. The resultant post-mortem ruled his death was "related to asphyxiation".

    In March 2013, IOPC forebear the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) submitted a file of evidence on the case to the Crown Prosecution Service, but the body ruled there was insufficient evidence for the arresting officer to be charged with unlawful arrest or unnecessary use of force. Four months later, the IPCC again passed a file to the CPS, arguing serious criminal charges be brought against two custody detention staff, three police officers and a custody sergeant. The six were placed on restricted duties, but weren't prosecuted or even suspended.

    It wasn't until December 2014 a police sergeant and two custody detention officers involved would be charged with manslaughter, and misconduct in public office. While the CPS believed there to be a "realistic prospect of conviction", the ensuing trial was terminated in its eleventh week in March 2016 by the presiding judge. "I've decided this trial cannot continue. I appreciate this may be a disappointment," he said, "given there may be a retrial we cannot say any more." A retrial was duly convened January 2017 — but within two months, the trio were acquitted. It would not be until October 2018 the office of the Devon and Cornwall chief constable pleaded guilty to breaking health and safety laws in dealing with Thomas — although the force didn't accept the belt directly caused his death. A judge will rule whether the ERB was a significant factor in the fatality after considering evidence at a further hearing in April.

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    Tags:
    psychological abuse, police accountability, mental health, police, Metropolitan Police, United Kingdom
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