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Mark Rowley is right – police belong nowhere near mental health crises

The police are a danger to people in mental health distress, but austerity has left the NHS unable to step in

Benny Hunter
30 May 2023, 5.14pm

Members of the United Families & Friends Campaign before their annual procession to Downing Street, 2022


Mark Kerrison / In Pictures via Getty Images

For once, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has accepted there may be a problem. Not willing to accept institutional racism, he’s opted to admit institutional ineptitude.

Mark Rowley has ordered his officers to stop attending emergency mental health calls, saying the service needs to get on with its core responsibility of “fighting crime” instead.

Well-meaning health professionals have reacted with dismay at the idea support is being withdrawn from those in need. But even Rowley himself has admitted that the police are the wrong people to be handling situations like these in the first place, an argument long made by police abolitionists.

Numerous tragic examples illustrate why this is. In June 2022, Met officers responded to reports of a man in distress on Chelsea Bridge. Video circulated on social media showed a brief stand-off between 41-year-old Oladeji Omishore and two police officers, before one officer fired an electric stun gun at Omishore. He writhed on the ground as the shock continued to be administered, then stood up, clambered over a barrier and fell to his death into the River Thames.

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The Met initially said officers were called to reports from the public of a seemingly unwell man clutching a screwdriver. It later emerged that it was a firelighter. Omishore’s family have said that they found out a taser had been used, not from the police when they reported his death, but from the internet.

Other such incidents have also ended in catastrophe. There was Sean Rigg, 40, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and died in police custody in 2008. There was Olaseni Lewis, 23, who died in 2010, after being restrained by 11 Met police officers at Bethlem Royal psychiatric hospital.

But what alternative is there for people experiencing a crisis? For those who might be a danger to themselves or others? Mark Rowley expects our crumbling health and social care services to step in, and to do so in fewer than 100 days’ time.

Ambulance waits

In the summer of 2020, I was working as a youth worker when I received a call from a young person who attended our youth club, to say his friend was behaving strangely, at a park in London. I called an ambulance but was warned on the phone there would be a wait. I decided to head over myself, even though I was at the time at home in Kent.

Two hours later, I arrived to find no sign of an ambulance. Instead, I found a group of ten young people I knew from the youth club, looking on in disbelief at their friend, now very clearly in distress. He was obviously unwell, walking into traffic at the edge of the park, hitting cars and shouting gibberish words at passers-by.

When approached, he would gesticulate wildly in a way that posed a risk to others as well as himself. I followed him as he weaved in and out of vehicles on the road, trying to reassure him and to get him to walk back towards his friends, to no avail.

We waited and waited for the ambulance to come. I twice called back to get an update, but none could be provided. Just sit tight, I was told. The ambulances they had out were responding to life and death emergencies as a priority.

Eventually, the young man picked up a glass bottle and started to strike himself about the face. It was at this point that I felt that things could get worse than they already were. I again called 999 and told them to please just send whoever they had available. Fifteen minutes later a cop car pulled up to the edge of the park and two officers stepped out and approached our group. I remember my first words to them were: “Please don’t escalate this situation.”

The officers, who were white, did precisely nothing to help and everything to make the situation worse. They approached the boy, who was Black, grabbed him by the wrists, and questioned him. They searched him, took his wallet and ran a check on his ID.

The most upsetting thing for me was being witness to how they spoke to him: there was so little compassion in the tone of their voices. An undeniable disdain for this boy who was taking up their time. They seemed to refuse to accept he was having a psychotic break, instead repeatedly asking him and his friends whether he was high on drugs (he had apparently smoked cannabis more than 48 hours previously – he was also a trauma survivor). His friends continued to insist they had never before seen him in this state. We asked that he be seen by medical professionals.

Then they let him go and walked back to their car. We were told that because he hadn’t committed a crime there was nothing for them to do – they could not detain him. They arrived, they checked that he wasn’t a wanted criminal, and they left.

Some 15 minutes later, the ambulance then did arrive. He was brought inside the vehicle by paramedics and, some time later, taken to hospital where he was detained under the Mental Health Act.

I often think back on this incident and ask myself whether I was right to ask the police to attend. And was it better for the boy that he was eventually detained, given that detention can also be harmful? I’m unsure.

Deliberate underfunding

Rowley’s proposal, while correct in its assessment of the police’s inability to respond appropriately to such incidents, seems destined to fail. Mental health and community services have been decimated by long-term cuts. A deliberate underfunding of the NHS has meant there are not sufficient resources to treat people quickly and in a therapeutic environment that does not cause them further harm. More than 500 people died last year after waiting too long for an ambulance to arrive. The number of people waiting for community mental health care currently stands at 1.2 million.

Yet a transfer of funding from the police to community mental health services (as some activists have called for) also seems like an inadequate treatment plan for the current situation.

Underlying socioeconomic and political factors – increasing poverty; worsening racism, homophobia and transphobia; poor housing; high levels of personal debt – fuel the alienation and distress that create our mental health crisis.

Not addressing rampant social inequality but instead dropping the problem on the lap of health and social care is a sticking plaster response that will not hold.

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