‘Risk-averse’ policing may be reason for increase in Mental Health Act detentions

A change in police culture to become more ‘risk-averse’ may have significantly contributed to a rise in detentions under section 136 of the Mental Health Act, new research suggests.

The study, led by Dr Allyn Thomas of the University’s Tizard Centre, found that over the past 30 years behaviours leading to detention, which used to be mainly violent, abusive or disturbing, had now changed to be overwhelmingly related to self-harm.

The researchers established that police officers now felt they were prevented from exercising discretion in dealing with those threatening self-harm because of a culture that fears ‘death following police contact’. This makes detentions almost inevitable, the study concluded.

The research was undertaken during 2015 in a small provincial police force containing post-industrial communities as well as relatively wealthy rural areas.

The research team found that all the officers participating in the study said that self-harm and threats of self-harm were the most common type of incident that they dealt with involving people whom they considered to be mentally ill.

Fifteen of the 17 officers participating in the research agreed that they were operating ‘in fear of a death in police contact’, resulting in risk-averse behaviour and a high degree of compliance with force policy – even when officers judge this as inappropriate.

In many cases, the study found, police officers were the only emergency service responding to a 999 call from someone threatening self-harm – leaving them with no option but to detain the person.

The researchers acknowledge that changes to section 136 contained in the Policing and Crime Act 2017 require officers to engage in triage and that this may result in the number of police detentions declining. But they argue that in the ‘absence of access to alternative support for those in crisis’, the level of engagement by police with those who are mentally ill will continue to rise.

The research, entitled Understanding the changing patterns of behaviour leading to increased detentions by the Police under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 (Allyn Thomas and Rachel Forrester-Jones) is published in Policing: a Journal of Policy and Practice.

The Tizard Centre is part of the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research.