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A police officer stands guard at St Thomas’ hospital in central London where Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in intensive care on April 7, 2020. – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who spent the night in intensive care with a deteriorating case of coronavirus, has been given oxygen but is not on a ventilator, a minister said today. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Policing mental health

Policing mental health


Within three months, the Met Police will stop attending all but the most serious mental health calls. Will it put vulnerable people in danger?

Sir Mark Rowley, head of the UK’s Metropolitan Police, wants his embattled force to go back to basics and solve more crimes. The 69,000 that go unrecorded by the Met each year show this will be no small effort.

In a letter to health and social care services, Rowley said that from September his officers would no longer respond to emergency calls linked to mental health incidents unless there was an immediate threat to life. He claims officers spend 10,000 hours a month dealing with these issues, and that police time could be better spent.

Precedent suggests the move could work. Humberside Police, under special scrutiny for poor performance until 2018, was transformed into the best force in the country thanks in part to a policy known as Right Care, Right Person.

The programme triages mental health calls to health professionals instead of officers, ensuring vulnerable people get the support they need. It has reportedly saved Humberside Police 1,100 hours per month.

But the force implemented its phased programme after a year of discussions with mental health care providers, emergency services and the NHS.

Rowley on the other hand appears to have taken the Met’s partners unawares. The president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists said the body was surprised by the police chief’s announcement, which the president described as a “unilateral declaration”.

Limiting the Met’s role as a first responder for vulnerable people could have devastating consequences, especially if officers wrongly determine that a caller doesn’t face an immediate threat to life. It can be difficult to judge the level of risk without assessing the caller face-to-face.

Rowley’s proposal also fails to address why police respond to so many mental health calls in the first place. The Met helps take the strain because healthcare services can’t cope with the demand. One in five calls to NHS crisis lines go unanswered. Rowley’s plan doesn’t change that, and may only make things worse.