Almost half of all critical incident callouts for Victoria Police involve a mentally ill person, with disturbed people frequently taken to hospital by police vans.
An Office of Police Integrity report tabled in State Parliament reveals that police are overwhelmed by the number of mentally ill people they have to deal with.
Between 2010 and 2011, 47 per cent of all Critical Incident Response Team callouts were related to mental illness. Police detain a mentally ill person every two hours in Victoria.
“These people do not belong in police custody,” he said.
The police watchdog said Ambulance Victoria was not fulfilling its responsibility of taking people to hospitals for mental health assessment.
Mr Bonighton was also concerned that mental health training for police could be overlooked in favour of pistol and Taser training.
Mental health training for police is currently part of a broader training program. But Mr Bonighton said the training agenda could become “too crowded” and reaffirm a “perception of a connection between mental ill persons and the use of force”.
“In the context of the rollout of semi-automatic pistols and Tasers, OPI has concerns about the extent to which the module may become vulnerable to being overlooked or replaced in future.”
The report said people were often taken to emergency departments in police vehicles, which was at odds with their rights.
“Safe, dignified and respectful transport for people with a mental health problem happens best in an ambulance, not in the back of a divisional van.”
Mr Bonighton said police referred to Crisis Assessment and Treatment Teams (CAT teams) as Call Again Tomorrow because they were overworked and understaffed.
“The fact remains that where health services do not have the resources to invest in these programs or decide not to, the onus often falls on police.”
Victorian Police Association secretary Greg Davies said dealing with the mentally ill should not be a police responsibility.
“In the past mental health professionals dealt with the mentally ill almost from the very outset,” he said. “Police are now the first point of contact in many cases. “Police are not mental health professionals. They can’t provide the same service.”
He said police were frustrated by the time they spent dealing with mentally ill people. “Some will be taken to hospital for exam under the Mental Health Act and then 24 hours later they
are back on the streets again. It’s like a revolving door.”
Orygen Health executive director Pat McGorry, who has provided advice to Victoria Police, said a lack of funding for mental health services and CAT teams had left police exposed to volatile situations.
“Young police can never be fully equipped to deal with these situations and are placed in very difficult situations,” he said.
In a letter included at the end of the report, Chief Commissioner Ken Lay said he welcomed the report and accepted its recommendations.
A spokeswoman for Police Minister Peter Ryan said the government was developing a new model that “will better support police and other front-line emergency workers to respond and manage mental health crisis in our community”.
As first appeared in The Age, 16 November 2012