The Met and Mental Health

May 31, 2023

Sir Mark Rowley is being attacked by medical and healthcare professionals following the announcement that the Met will no longer attend some calls related to mental health from this summer unless there is a threat to life.

But he is right, and he should stand his ground.

British policing, and the Met in particular, is in crisis and has lost public confidence after a series of high-profile scandals. Rowley, now well into his first year as Commissioner, doesn’t have the luxury of time to fix the many problems the force is facing. He knows that if he is to regain the confidence of Londoners his officers need to be focused on their primary mission – fighting crime and disorder across the capital.

To have any chance of success that means not being distracted by work which should rightly fall to other public services. Yet every single day over 70% of the calls the Met receives have nothing to do with crime or anti-social behaviour.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists called Sir Mark Rowley’s decision “unhelpful”, the charity Rethink Mental Illness said it was “not appropriate” and the Chair of an NHS mental health trust has described it as “potentially alarming”.

However, it is very clear that the Met is some distance from proposing a wholesale withdrawal from this type of work. Other forces have already successfully implemented the ‘Right Care, Right Person’ approach and it is now seen as best practice for policing nationally. In Humberside Police, where the programme originated, the force says they have saved 32,828 officer hours over the first two years whilst those who were mentally unwell got the right care from the right professionals.

Whenever I speak with frontline police officers, they tell me how their days are consumed dealing with issues which should rightly be the responsibility of healthcare professionals. I have heard about officers having to spend a full 24 hours with a patient at hospital while they waited for medical staff to complete a mental health assessment. Every day officers are expected to visit someone’s home because their mental health social worker can’t get hold of them. On one occasion officers were required to search for a mental health patient who had left the hospital ward on approved leave but hadn’t returned and was last seen enjoying a pint in the local pub.

Policy Exchange raised these issues in one of our reports last summer – it is to be welcomed that the Commissioner is taking bold action.

Over recent years there has been no guarantee that if your home was burgled the police would attend. The proportion of crimes which are actually solved remains shamefully low. Too often drug dealers and thugs seem to act in our communities with impunity. Meanwhile police officers are being diverted to activities which should be the responsibility of other professionals. We wouldn’t ask firefighters to treat cancer or paramedics to investigate a robbery. Neither should we be asking the police to do the job of the health service – particularly given the NHS’s £160 billion budget is ten times the size of the country’s entire policing budget.

Of course, this must not be taken as an opportunity for the police to shirk their responsibilities. The Commissioner has made clear that where there is a threat to life police officers will still attend. He needs to be clear that his expectations will go further. The police have a duty to protect communities from crime and anti-social behaviour. Where there is a potential risk to the public the police need to turn up, investigate and if appropriate make arrests. Once that risk has been discounted then is the time for the police to handover to medical professionals rather than taking up more police time. Just because someone has a mental illness does not necessarily preclude them from being prosecuted if they commit a crime. The Commissioner must not allow this change to become a charter for crime, disorder or anti-social behaviour in our communities and on our streets.

This decision should mean that officers in the capital will increasingly be able to focus on their primary task of preventing and investigating crime and disorder. No doubt there are other controversial decisions in the pipeline. Sir Mark will have the public’s support for those decisions, but only if we can see the tangible difference his leadership is making in our communities and on our high streets. Having now been in office for nine months whether the public can actually see the difference his leadership is making is the only yardstick that matters.

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