Police must improve relations with people with mental disabilities

Better liaison between neighbourhood police teams and those with mental health problems and scrapping the use of police custody as a place of safety are among the recommendations made to police in Lord Keith Bradley’s report on policing those with disabilities in the criminal justice system.

Released this week, The Bradley Report is the conclusion of an independent inquiry into the diversion of offenders with mental health problems or learning disabilities away from prison into other more appropriate services.

The stage of police contact is currently the least developed in the offender pathway in terms of engagement with health and social services, the report states, as intervention generally occurs further along the pathway at the court and sentence stages. It is suggested that neighbourhood policing presents a “significant opportunity” for officers to work proactively in local communities and with local agencies to help identify people with mental health problems at risk of offending or re-offending.

The NHS and the police should explore the feasibility of transferring commissioning and budgetary responsibility for healthcare services in police custody suites to the NHS, the report recommends, to provide more consistent care. Currently the services are commissioned by each individual police force, leading to inconsistencies in the care provided and breaks in the continuity of a person’s care. The lack of collaboration also causes difficulty in getting information from NHS sources.

There is currently no national requirement for police to record statistics on the number of people with mental health needs coming into contact with them. Lord Bradley’s report concludes that this means there is a lack of information needed to help estimate the full scale of the problem, and therefore limiting what planning can be done. There are also problems with the reliability of any data that is recorded as the report states there are inadequacies in identifying the illness and difficulties in diagnosis.

Liaison and diversion services at police stations could have the potential to prevent a person with a mental health or learning disability entering the criminal justice system in a way that could be damaging to them. With functions determined at a local level, a liaison and diversion service at the police station could provide significant benefits by improving screening and identification of individuals with mental health problems or learning disabilities, providing information to police and prosecutors to facilitate the earliest possible diversion of offenders with mental disorders from the criminal justice system, and signposting to local health and social care services as appropriate.

The key recommendations include:

    * Local safer neighbourhood teams should play a key role in identifying and supporting people in the community with mental health problems or learning disabilities who may be involved in low-level offending or anti-social behaviour by establishing local contacts and partnerships and developing referral pathways.

    * Community support officers and police officers should link with local mental health services to develop joint training packages for mental health awareness and learning disability issues.

    * Information on an individual’s mental health or learning disability needs should be obtained prior to an anti-social behaviour order or penalty notice for disorder being issued, or for the pre-sentence report if these penalties are breached.

    * Discussions should immediately commence to identify suitable local mental health facilities as the place of safety, ensuring that the police station is no longer used for this purpose.

    * A review of the role of appropriate adults in police stations should be undertaken and aim to improve the consistency, availability and expertise of this role.

    * All police custody suites should have access to liaison and diversion services.

    * Liaison and diversion services should also provide information and advice services to all relevant staff including solicitors and appropriate adults.

    * Mental health awareness and learning disabilities should be a key component in the police training programme.

Following the release of the report, a Health and Criminal Justice National Programme Board will be set up by the end of May, to bring together the relevant departments covering health, social care and criminal justice for children and adults. The board will consider Lord Bradley’s recommendations and develop a national delivery plan by October this year.

“The establishment of criminal justice mental health teams will have a significant impact on this chain of events. By ensuring early identification and assessment, along with improved information sharing, there will be better-informed charging, prosecution and sentencing decisions. In the longer term, the impact may be that more offenders can be treated in the community, ensuring that those individuals who must be in prison can receive targeted, effective care while they are there,” the report states.

A national advisory board will also be established to ensure wider involvement from interested organisations.

The report has been welcomed by ministers across government, including the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Vernon Coaker, Minister for Policing, Crime and Security said:

“We will use Lord Bradley’s review to build on the existing good practice that takes place in many police stations as we recognise that early intervention of healthcare professionals can help reduce the risk of harm to the individual and minimise any dangers to police officers and others. It can also help disrupt criminal lifestyles and help prevent further reoffending.”

The expectation is that in the first six months following publication of the report there will be:

    * A clear national strategic direction.
    * The new governance arrangements at a national, regional and local level.
    * A fully-costed national delivery plan for all the recommendations, and progress on their implementation under way.