How Humberside police’s pioneering policy on mental health calls paid off

  • london
  • May 30, 2023
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Where Hull leads, London follows. At least, that is the case when it comes to a radical new approach to policing that has led to the Humberside constabulary achieving the highest arrest and crime detection rates in the country – by refusing to attend most mental health calls.

When a letter from the Metropolitan police commissioner was leaked to the Guardian this week warning that from September his officers would no longer attend unnecessary mental health calls, Lee Freeman had a jolt of recognition.

The pioneering chief constable of Humberside police had issued a similarly blunt deadline to health partners back in 2019 when he decided far too much police time was being spent attending calls over concerns for welfare, mental health incidents or missing people.

Then, Freeman’s force was receiving 25,000 such calls a year – 11% of total demand. His officers were deployed to 78% of these. Most were unnecessary and 75% came from other agencies, Freeman recalled.

“We’d get someone saying: ‘We’re ringing you from the hospital, we had a voluntary patient who was due to attend for an appointment because they’ve got depression and they’ve not turned up. Can you go check if they’re OK, please?’ And we would.”

Other times, officers were called to detain someone having a mental health episode and then take them to a place of safety but ended up spending “10, 12, sometimes 16 hours” waiting for a crisis bed to be found, Freeman said. “It was completely unsustainable.”

He came up with what became Right Care, Right Person (RCRP), a strategy of deploying officers to only the most essential mental health-related calls and diverting the rest of the cases to dedicated health professionals. It is so successful that it is now being not just copied by the Met but turned into a “national partnership agreement” to be adopted across England and Wales.

Three years on from implementing RCRP, Humberside police attend an average of 508 fewer incidents a month, saving 1,440 officer hours each month, according to Freeman.

With those free officers he formed teams dedicated to targeting drug dealers and finding missing people. The results are stark: in the past two years Humberside police have arrested more people per 1,000 population than any other force in the country, and have the highest detection rate for all crimes. “It really did allow us to get back to basics,” Freeman said.

While the Met commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, has given health providers in London less than four months to prepare for RCRP, Freeman gave Humberside health chiefs just over a year. A deadline was necessary, he recalled, because his initial warnings – to the chief executives of the local councils, mental health providers, hospitals, ambulance trusts and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) – were not met with sufficient urgency.

The response was “mixed”, he said. The health chiefs all seemed to think there was no immediate rush to change the status quo. Like Rowley, he put pen to paper. “I did have to formally write and point out that from a legal perspective, actually I didn’t have a duty of care under these circumstances, and I wasn’t going to continue to assume that duty of care.”

That was in April 2019, and he set a series of deadlines, beginning in May 2020, after which his officers would be far more selective about attending four different sorts of calls: concern for welfare, walkout of healthcare facilities, transport to mental health provision and dealing with people having a mental health crisis in public places.

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His formal letters worked, and before long the CCGs found (Freeman’s word) about £1m in their budgets to fund additional mental health crisis suites and assessment beds. The ambulance trusts also found money to buy extra ambulances so that paramedics and not police officers would be the default transport providers for those in mental health crisis.

Emergency call handlers needed training and support to turn down requests for help, working alongside experts from Mind, the mental health charity. “Many of them have been in there for 10, 15, 20 years just saying yes. To suddenly say no to somebody on the phone, that was really worrying for our staff, because they do care about the people on the end of the line, and they want to help,” Freeman said.

He stressed that his officers were still turning up to 25% of mental health calls. The rest are triaged to health services in the call centre.

“There are occasions when it’s entirely appropriate for the police to go,” he said. “If somebody is being violent or somebody is threatening anybody else or somebody is committing a crime, if somebody has threatened ambulance staff, we go.”