How drunk tanks – or ‘Sobering Centres’ – could help the police and our NHS

October 10, 2013

At a recent Policy Exchange event Matthew Grove, the PCC for Humberside, correctly identified that we have to find new ways of tackling the drinking culture in which public drunkenness is simply laughed off. It’s a culture that means a bad hangover is no deterrent to people repeatedly drinking to the point of unconsciousness. And it’s a culture in which being taken to A&E in an ambulance, or sleeping it off in police cells, is seen as a free good rather than an embarrassing incident, never to be repeated.

The drain on our NHS resources for dealing with inebriated people exceeds £2.7bn every year. Why should our doctors and nurses have to deal with aggressive or paralytic drunks night after night, when their skills should be utilized for patients who genuinely need their care? Why should our police have to undertake double shifts to watch over drunks for 24 hours in a cell, when they could be out tackling serious crime? And why should people who really need A&E services be put off from going there on a Friday or Saturday night, fearing that the waiting room will be a threatening, unpredictable and unpleasant place to wait for treatment?

The concept of drunk tanks is not a gimmick – it’s an idea that merits real examination. There are numerous examples of drunk tanks used in many countries, including Australia, the Czech Republic, Poland and a number of US states. But while the idea  has again been raised in the last few weeks, no-one has yet really articulated how they might work. Not all international examples are particularly instructive; clearly UK drunk tanks should not involve the hosing down of drunks with freezing water, or strapping them to their bed if they become aggressive.

So, what could they look like? Would they work best as individual custody style cells or dedicated drunk tank vehicles? Or should they have a more therapeutic focus and be set up like an A&E, as part of a hospital?  Who should staff them and what powers should staff have to detain people and deal appropriately with aggressive behaviour?  What emphasis should be placed on giving support to drunk tank inhabitants to try and tackle their drinking problem?

To determine what our drunk tanks (or, perhaps ‘Sobering Centres’) could look like, we need to look at the varying circumstances in which people can be brought in. Often, they will simply be individuals who have become incapable of looking after themselves. This may require monitoring for a few hours or overnight to sleep off the alcohol. It is clear that these individuals can be cared for in a hospital ward-like setting, giving staff the ability to monitor a number of individuals at the same time. This not only takes them off the streets and away from potential harm, but also keeps them out of hospital, freeing up bed spaces for those who need genuine treatment. The Sobering Centres could even deploy their own vehicles to pick up individuals, saving police or ambulance transportation costs and time.

Secondly, there are individuals who may pose a threat to themselves or the public, and may be more aggressive. This should not include those who have actually committed an offence.  As in Santa Barbara, the sobering up centres act as a middle ground for those who do not need to be taken into custody, but still need the care to sober up, allowing individuals to escape an arrest or criminal record whilst receiving a brief intervention to help change their future behaviour. Trained staff must be available to not only deal with aggressive behaviour, but also to monitor the individuals in special cells to protect others. Critics have highlighted the ambiguity around legal powers, but prison officers in private prisons are already granted appropriate powers to deal with violence or aggression.

The final group to consider is the alcoholics and long term drinkers. A readily available service offered by trained counsellors should be open to those who are ready to try and change their behaviour and lifestyle. Although we do not think such service should be forced on individuals, such a service could work alongside the charging process. For example, as in Sydney, the cost of care could rise upon each visit, or a discount should be offered to anyone who agrees to undertake a programme of counselling, for example a ‘Drinking Awareness Course.’ This works well with speeding punishments, and a similar system could be applied.

The introduction of Sobering Centres provides a great opportunity to innovate and begin to tackle today’s out of control drinking culture. They do not need to be a ‘quick fix’ attempt, but should begin with pilots, determining what form of support works best for individuals, what procedures work best in sobering people up safely, and provide a set of services to really begin to change behaviour. Charging someone for the cost of their care will teach them the clear lesson that such behaviour will no longer be tolerated. Perhaps most importantly, it will free up time, money and resources from our already pressurised NHS and police forces, allowing them to focus on treating genuine patients and tackling more serious crime.

The blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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