by Ian Cummins
17th August 2020

The Black Lives Matter movement began in the summer of 2013. It was a radical community-based response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

Zimmerman had shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida 2012. Alongside the Black Lives Matters movement, ‘Defund the police’ has been one of the responses to the protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020. ‘Defund the police’ campaigns question the increased militarisation of policing (Harcourt, 2018). Activists argue that money spent on law enforcement could be diverted to social programmes. Vitale argues that policing has increasingly taken on a role in responding to the problems generated by modern urban poverty and the impact of retrenchment in educational, mental health and other services. The police are poorly trained and ill-equipped to perform these ‘social work’ roles. This, combined with what has been termed the ‘warrior’ mindset of modern urban policing inevitably leads to conflict on both an individual and societal level. Police involvement is stigmatising and potentially puts individuals at risk.

Wood et al.’s 2011 review of trends in the UK, Canada and the USA concludes that the same issues arise across these countries: a combination of reduced psychiatric provision and poorly funded community services has led to increased pressure on police officers who often receive little or no specific mental health training. In 2013, Lord Adebowale, following the death of Sean Rigg in police custody, carried out an inquiry and concluded that ‘mental health is core police business’. In October 2018, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee published the Policing for the Future report. Dee Collins, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, stated during her evidence that ‘83% of [her] time in terms of delivering services is not about crime’. Chief Constable Collins identified three key areas of demand on the police: mental health work, missing people (particularly missing children) and multi-agency child protection work.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS)’s Picking up the Pieces report of 2018 focuses on a range of issues that were similarly highlighted by the House of Commons report, arguing that the police are called upon to respond to too many instances of mental health crises. This is not considered an appropriate use of police resources. The report repeats concerns that officers have not been adequately trained to support people in the midst of a mental health crisis and that police involvement may also put such people at greater risk. Senior managers are concerned both about the suitability of police interventions as well as the demands being placed on police resources. In 2016, the former Met. Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, suggested that responding to vulnerable people in crisis was preventing the police from fulfilling their core function of ensuring community safety. In 2017, Sir Tom Winsor (HM’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary) stated in his Annual State of Policing report that the police had become the service of first rather than last resort for people in crisis.

The calls to ‘defund the police’ have largely come from the USA and the focus there has been on reducing budgets for riot gear and hardware. Alongside this, there have been calls for the budgets of a range of welfare services to be increased. The question that then arises is whether it is possible to create a mental health system that does not involve the police. If the funding and broader role of the police is to be considered and reevaluated, then this must take place in the context of a review of the provision of mental health support. The focus on police involvement in emergency and crisis work should not obscure the need for greater investment in a range of mental health services.

The notion of investing more in community mental health services so that the police role is reduced is an attractive one. If we look back to the original arguments for community care, they were based on criticisms of the abuses of institutionalised psychiatry, combined with progressive notions of citizenship. The vision of well-funded community-based mental health services included a range of alternative approaches and resources for those experiencing mental health challenges. That vision has never been realised. One of the results has been that the police, for the reasons outlined above, have become increasingly involved in responding to a range of mental health emergencies.

The broader calls to defund the police have indirectly led to an environment which allows for the further examination of the role of the police in mental health work. Vitale makes a radical call for the police to be removed completely from mental health work. He argues that the police are not equipped to deal with these sorts of emergencies and that police involvement is stigmatising and potentially puts service users at greater risk. These are sentiments that are widely shared by service users groups, senior police managers and individual officers. While it may be difficult to envisage mental health services with no police role whatsoever, the challenge is to develop models of mental health services that limit police involvement as far as possible.

Ian Cummins, Senior Lecturer in the School of Health and Society at Salford University is author of Mental Health Services and Community Care: a Critical History. Bristol Policy Press, and the forthcoming Welfare and Punishment: from Thatcherism to Austerity, out in February 2021.

Welfare and Punishment by Ian Cummins is available on the Bristol University Press website. Pre-order the book here for £60.00.

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