Gwent Police Federation chair Steve Thorpe says the pressure on frontline officers and staff to respond to mental health-related call-outs is likely to increase because of the pandemic.
Steve was speaking as statistics obtained by the BBC under Freedom of Information law suggests up to 4,500 people in mental health crisis were unlawfully held in police custody in England and Wales in a year.
The figures come from a report commissioned by Theresa May when she was Prime Minister and given to ministers in 2018.
Steve is calling for the Government to provide investment in mental health services to reduce the numbers of people in crisis being unlawfully held in custody.
He said: “Being asked to respond to incidents in which mental health is a factor is nothing new to our members and, given the impact the pandemic has had an on people’s mental health, we would expect that to increase.
“However, our members are not medical professionals and it’s vital that people who are unwell – physically or mentally – receive the right care and support in an appropriate setting.
“The right place for someone in crisis is not a police cell.
“Which is why we need Government investment in mental health services to ensure people receive the support they need at a time of crisis and the pressure is eased on an already overstretched police service.”
Steve’s comments were echoed by John Apter, the chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales.
John said: “It is deeply frustrating to see more headlines revealing members of the public in mental health crisis are being kept in police cells when they absolutely shouldn’t be as they are patients – not prisoners.
“The Federation has been warning about this issue for many years which presents an unfair risk to both people in desperate need of professional help and the police officers left with no choice but to step in.
“If we fail to talk about this the problem won’t go away - it’s almost like a dirty little secret and nobody wants to accept we have a problem when in fact it’s a massive issue which is only getting worse.
“Our NHS and social care services simply don’t have the capacity and policing is unable to say no. This must change.
“Alongside us, other policing bodies, including the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the National Police Chiefs’ Council have supported urgent need for action as the police service continues to be used to plug the gaps of other agencies when they already struggling to cope with demand. This is grossly unfair and must stop.
“I would urge the Government to take responsibility, both legislatively and financially, so that real money is put into secure non-police facilities, drug and alcohol services, community health and social care programmes so that the most vulnerable people in society can be helped and protected.”