Over the weekend, the news broke that the Metropolitan police plans to stop attending 999 calls about mental health emergencies where there is not “an immediate threat to life”.
Mark Rowley, commissioner of the Met police, has given health and social care services a deadline of the 31st August 2023 before the “ban” on officers attending these calls starts.
Rowley refers to the “right care, right person” scheme in the letter to the Met’s health and social care partners outlining his plans, and states that Londoners are being failed “by sending police officers, not medical professionals, to those in mental health crisis, and expecting them to do their best in circumstances where they are not the right people to be dealing with the patient.”
We do not believe that the police should be involved in the response to mental health emergencies and crises. We know that police involvement in mental health emergencies can result in criminalisation, punishment and deaths. The system is not fit for purpose, and police involvement and its punitive or fatal consequences are a symptom of a deeply cruel and broken system.
The context of the “right care, right person” scheme, which aims to make sure that people receive support from the right service in mental health emergencies, is that austerity has left health and social care services underfunded, under-resourced, and unable to meet need. The police are not the appropriate agency to respond to people in crisis, but we do not think that health and social care services will be able to introduce plans to fill the gaps left by the police by the 31st of August.
There is a workforce crisis within the NHS, and a lack of community-based alternatives to mental health crisis response, such as crisis sanctuaries. Alternative offers of crisis support by community and mutual aid groups have also been decimated by austerity. The gaps left will not be plugged by rapid-response crisis teams and alternative forms of support that simply do not have capacity.
People already experience rejection, exclusion and gatekeeping from services; deemed too risky for community services and not sufficiently in crisis for crisis teams. Further withdrawal of emergency response for people in crisis without properly-funded alternatives will exacerbate the status quo.
It is also important to note that, according to the Met, “where there is an immediate threat to life, officers will continue to respond”. This caveat, however, raises more questions than it resolves. What makes a threat to life immediate? Who gets to make that judgement call? These are questions that already play out in and around mental health services. Survivors speak of “the phenomenon of being told they “have the capacity to choose to end their life”, or similar, when asking for help while suicidal.
Three months is not enough time to properly plan and implement a system that will protect people from harm and provide the best possible care for those in crisis. In the long term, we believe that police absence from mental health emergency responses would prevent harm, but withdrawing emergency response capacity without well thought-out systems and alternatives in place is also counterproductive. We need to imagine and resource genuine alternatives, something that will need commitment far beyond the three months the Met has given health and social care services to fill this gap, and far beyond the current resourcing of the NHS, of crisis services, and of community alternatives.
What we need is immediate action – a response that reflects the ongoing crisis in mental health services and responses to mental health emergencies, in terms of both capacity and culture. What must come after this withdrawal is a fundamental rethink of the way in which we respond to people in crisis – one that centres care, choice and dignity.
Update (6th June 2023): we wrote a piece with INQUEST for Huck, “Police cutting back on mental health calls shows how badly we need alternatives”, which you can read here.
Update (31st October 2023): since this piece was published, news broke that other police forces are being encouraged to follow suit. The Met also extended its end of August “deadline” to the end of October, and is starting to withdraw from responding to mental health calls under the “right care, right person” scheme from today. We published a joint statement with 30 organisations in response, which you can read here.