Southwark has lost 300 police officers and PCSOs and is witnessing a rise in mental health incidents affecting the police and NHS. After hearing from local people, charities and police officers about the decreasing visibility of police officers and the impact of mental health crises on the police I asked the borough commander to join police shifts. On Friday I joined a Rapid Response Team covering Southwark. It was an invaluable experience and I am very grateful to Inspector Robbins for organising the shift and to the officers I joined in their BMW.
The first call was to a family in Rotherhithe seeking for their son to be sectioned. They couldn’t handle his erratic behaviour and didn’t know who to contact. The police had to ensure the man wasn’t aggressive (due to previous incidents) and helped him into an ambulance with one officer escorting him inside and the other following in the police BMW to Kings, where a wait occurred to make the transfer to hospital staff.
After a brief Peckham visit to help break up a fight, another Rotherhithe call came in. A woman had been pulled back from the rooftop of a block of flats having intended to throw herself off. An ambulance crew had arrived before the police (unusually apparently) and were trying to talk her back downstairs. The ambulance crew reported a lack of training for such circumstances and very limited mental health training overall. There is apparently a 20% shortfall in paramedics in London, with recruitment exercises currently as far as New Zealand to boost numbers. Morale is low and demands on the job high; one crew member reported after leaving hospital on one occasion discovering over 160 jobs waiting. What this means for people seeking emergency help is terrifying.
The police seemed better able to engage with the woman. She didn’t make much sense on why she’d reached such a terrible point or where her car, home, friends or any family were. We followed the ambulance to South London and the Maudsley. The wait to get in was over half an hour, but police and paramedics suggested this was fast and gave examples of more than an hour just sat outside hospitals. This is a waste of police and ambulance crews’ time, especially when other incidents need answering. I am asking SLAM and Commander Gibson to consider a ‘holding unit’ of some description to free up officers’ time. It would allow cars and officers to drop off and get back out on calls faster.
The next call was to a fight in Walworth. The caller claimed alcohol was involved but confessed it was heroin when police arrived. Another man was in a very distressing state; unable to even sit, scratching uncontrollably, eyes rolling upwards without focus, frothing at the mouth and unable to speak. I thought he might die. They’d used heroin and crack, injected in the groin. An ambulance rushed him to hospital.
Then two more jobs in Rotherhithe. The first a woman claiming she was going to shoot herself. She disappeared before police arrived but her friends didn’t seem too worried. She’d headed home to Lewisham but the police had to take her claims seriously and issue a missing person’s alert and ask Lewisham colleagues to visit her home to check on her welfare.
The second was a woman who had screamed ‘help’ to the 999 operator before being cut off. A track record of domestic violence at the address of the caller led police to race to the home. The woman’s partner explained they’d had a row after he arrived home from work to find dog muck in the flat. He put it in a bag but then threw it at her. The bag split. She was no longer at home so other officers were asked to interview the woman when found to consider what further action might be necessary.
I left the team about 10.30pm having spent almost eight hours whizzing round the borough. I spent more time than expected in Rotherhithe, but was less surprised at the high level of police time spent at incidents involving someone experiencing a mental health crisis. Sadly, the Coalition squeeze on the NHS is likely to exacerbate the problem – with A&E and the London Ambulance Service in crisis and even midwives now voting for strike action for the first time in their history. Cuts in police numbers haven’t helped –and the campaign to reinstate police numbers to the level set by City Hall is online at change.org.