Fewer mentally ill people are being taken into police custody thanks to a new initiative by ACT police.
Under the scheme, mental health clinicians work alongside police, advising them on how to deal with people suffering a mental health emergency.
“The clinicians can provide advice to the attending officers to reduce the level of attendance or the stigma of the attendance,” Deputy Chief Police Officer David Pryce said.
“They might provide advice on the approach that police take, they might even speak directly with the person if that’s able to be done.”
In the past most mentally ill people in an emergency situation were held in police custody for their own protection and taken to a mental health facility.
But there have been cases where the inability to defuse a situation has had deadly consequences.
Two years ago, Nathan Doherty was shot dead by police in Wanniassa after he threatened them with a knife and a meat cleaver.
The 27-year-old had struggled with mental illness for much of his life.
In 2001, Jonathan Crowley suffered a psychotic episode and threatened several people with a bamboo martial arts stick.
When police officers were unable to subdue him, they shot him in the neck, leaving him a quadriplegic.
ACT chief psychiatrist Dr Peter Norrie says the new scheme offers better protection to mentally ill people caught up in confrontations with police.
“I have no doubt it’s saved lives,” he said.
“It’s hard to quantify but I’m certainly confident that it’s not only saved lives, it’s also markedly reduced distress and produced some really good outcomes for people who would have otherwise been in the justice system.”
Because of this success, the current three-day a week project will now be extended to seven days.
The joint initiative between ACT Health and police is a first in Australia, and has also included the intensive training of hundreds of police on the beat.
This article first appeared on ABC Online on 10 October, 2013.