Staffordshire reveals cost of policing mental illness

Almost a year since the new-style directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC) came into office, some of them are clearly making their mark.

Image caption Matthew Ellis has commissioned Staffordshire's Mental Health Review

One of the first things to strike Staffordshire's incoming PCC, Matthew Ellis, was the escalating cost to his force of dealing with people with mental illnesses.

He tells us: "When you get a couple of police officers taken off an entire shift simply to look after an individual who hasn't committed a crime and is simply ill, but still sees the inside of a police cell with two police officers checking them to make sure they're ok, it's not the right use of resources and it's certainly not something police officers are qualified to do."

What he is not saying is that it is never the job of the police to intervene, especially out of hours, when mental health-related incidents require urgent and decisive action.

But he is convinced that the police are all too often the agency of last resort when ideally other caring services might have prevented problems escalating to crisis-levels requiring the services of the police.

Single pot of money

And inevitably at a time when the police are having to make ever more stringent savings, there is mounting concern about the cost of dealing with people who are mentally ill, estimated at nearly £1m in Staffordshire alone last year.

In 2012, the force attended 15,000 incidents and arrested 169 people solely for the purpose of mental health assessments.

But the cost argument works both ways. If Mr Ellis wants NHS teams to take more active roles upfront, they too would need to be funded to do so.

Would he and his fellow PCCs be prepared to contribute to a single pot of money to make this happen?

The North Staffordshire Combined NHS Trust tell us they work closely with the police in custody facilities to help officers deal with mentally ill detainees. But inevitably, they have strict budget limits of their own.

Therapeutic response

But it's not just the cost or the resources that worry Matthew Ellis.

His other big concern is that when mentally ill people fall through the gaps in the system and into the hands of the police, their paraphernalia of handcuffs and custody cells is not exactly the kind of therapeutic response these unfortunate people really need.

Staffordshire's Mental Health Review, commissioned by Mr Ellis, makes 12 main recommendations. Among them:

  • Police and Mental Health Strategic group
  • Review alternative place of safety options for assessment needs
  • Supervision of custody detainee arrangements
  • Joint training options for multi agency attendance and partnership working.

Mr Ellis will be with me in the studio for this week's Sunday Politics from 11:00 BST on BBC One.

This is by way of a co-production with our colleagues on Inside Out Midlands who have been out on patrol with Staffordshire Police to experience some of the challenging realities confronting them out on the ground.

See their findings exclusively on Inside Out with Mary Rhodes at 19.30 on BBC One on Monday.