NSW Police Role in Acute Mental Health-Related Situations

Presentation by Detective-Sergeant Justin Marks, NSW Police on Police Role in Acute Mental Health-Related Situations.

At the August 13th meeting, Justin gave an informative overview of the police role in this region and shared some valuable insights into how our police seek to maintain the safety of distressed people and help ensure they receive the care in the least intrusive way. We thank Justin for helping us in this way and for all the expertise and support he provides to SPAN, including in his work as a valued member of our Management Committee.

Some key points relating to Justin’s presentation:

. Police officers are frequently called to incidents involving acute mental health issues. Local police have attended 186 such incidents between January and August 2020. Police must also attend after every suicide death

. If addiction to drugs or a psychotic reaction to a drug are involved, the situation is likely to become more complicated, involve violence and be more difficult to manage. The cost of maintaining an addiction can be high, leading to a higher likelihood of crime. Behaviour of the person causing concern can be unpredictable and extreme.

. In situations involving a person who may have been responsible for a minor offence but there are mitigating factors such as mental illness, domestic violence, poverty, addiction and such, ensuring access to appropriate support may well take precedence over police prosecution regarding the minor offence. If police can facilitate action that can address and help sort out the underlying issue, other similar or more serious future offences may well be avoided.

. All NSW police undertake a week’s mandatory Mental Health Intervention Training in Sydney to help them de-escalate such situations where possible and to teach them how to use the least intrusive means.

. Depending on the situation, including whether there is a responsible friend or relative present, police may, in the first instance, encourage the person (or relative etc) to seek help from their GP or other professional. If a visit to ED (Emergency Department) is considered advisable (and it appears safe to have a relative or friend take them), police will encourage the relative or other responsible person to take the person to hospital. Police are mindful of the need to respect the feelings and dignity of the person needing help and their commitment to using the least intrusive means.

. If professional involvement is considered necessary to ensure safety of the person, an ambulance will generally be called rather than have police transport the person to hospital.

. Only as a last resort when the threat to safety of the person or others is sufficient to justify it, the police may need to transport the person to the Emergency Department in a police vehicle.

. Police transport of a person in these circumstances may be voluntary or, in some instances, involuntary under a Schedule 22 authority. If this is necessary, police will ensure they speak with the ED Assessment Team regarding the situation that has led to this action and help establish how the situation might best be managed. Particularly if the person is familiar with what to say to make it look as if they are no longer at high risk, they may tell the medical and mental health assessor what they think they want to hear. The police officers’ observations and assessment of the person, including of the person’s apparent intention and behaviour during the incident, can contribute to better overall assessment and help lead to more appropriate care.

. It was also interesting to hear Justin’s comment about the changing dynamics of police work over the 25 years he has served with the police force. He spoke of a trend towards people having less trust now for police. For example, whereas previously parents may have reacted favourably if police picked up children in unsafe situations, or engaged in antisocial or risky behaviour and returned them safely to their parents, now it is more likely that the parents would berate the police and be critical of their ‘interference’ or ‘picking on’ their child. We can only speculate about what might have contributed to this troubling change reflecting greater distrust of police but it seems likely that social media may well be at least partly responsible.

We are immensely grateful for the help police provide to help keep our community safe, especially in relation to those struggling with mental health issues. We need them and they need our support.

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