Mentally ill people held by police too often - watchdogs
Too many mentally ill people are being held in police cells, say four watchdog bodies in England and Wales.
A report from the four bodies covering police, prisons and care called for a rethink of how powers are used to detain people in a "place of safety".
Some of those who were detained were as young as 14.
Current guidance says police should take the mentally ill to a hospital or similar location in all but exceptional circumstances.
But the report, from Her Majesty's Inspectorates of Constabulary and Prisons, the Care Quality Commission and the Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, said detention in police cells was far from exceptional.
Under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983, police officers can hold someone for their own protection and so that they can be medically assessed.
Examples include officers called to deal with an elderly person with dementia walking outside alone, people who may be suicidal, or incidents in which someone is suffering from a psychotic episode leading to abnormal or dangerous behaviour.
During 2011-12, 9,000 people were detained in police custody under section 136, while 16,000 were taken to a hospital.
This is "clearly not an exceptional use of the power", the inspectors said.
"Their only 'crime' is that they have mental disorders, but they are treated in many ways as if they are criminals. This deplorable situation cannot be allowed to continue," said Drusilla Sharpling, of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.
When the watchdogs looked closely at a sample of 70 cases, they found that eight out of 10 of those held in police cells had been detained in relation to fears either that they were suicidal or that they could harm themselves.
The report said people detained in police custody under section 136 were subject to the same "processes and procedures" as arrested criminals.
The average stay in a cell was more than 10 hours. Inspectors said the legal disparity needed to be resolved between mental health detainees, who could be held for 72 hours, and most criminals, who must be charged or released after 24.
The most common reasons for police custody were that there was neither a bed nor staff available at a hospital or other healthcare facility.
Other detainees were taken to cells because they were drunk, behaving violently, or known to have done so in the past.
Claire Greaves, 21, was kept in a police cell overnight after her college rang the police when she became suicidal. The stay came after the local hospital had no beds available.
Ms Greaves, who was strip-searched, said on-duty officers "reassured me that it was fine".
But the cell "was horrible because it was not the cleanest and happiest of places. It makes you feel like you've done something wrong because you're sat in a cell on a Friday night".
"There were people kicking off, people being restrained, people shouting and swearing," she said.
"I'm never going to forget that I've spent the night in a cell. It was a distressing environment. It's a place for criminals not people who are feeling ill."
The report said many police officers had told inspectors they did not think that custody was the best place for those detained.
Det Con Steve White, of Devon and Cornwall Police, said: "It's a real catch-22. More people have mental health problems than there are staff to deal with them.
"A lot of the time, the assessor says 'This person isn't severe enough to be admitted' so we have to release them. But the patient still feels they want treatment and is determined to get help, so goes out and either commits a crime or goes and stands on the top of a cliff in a suicide attempt, as a cry for help to get the attention and treatment that they feel they need."
He said a lack of resources and funding meant police were becoming a "last resort".
"We had a time when we did a lot of community projects to prevent crimes from happening, now we are really just firefighting," he added.
Policing organisations said it was important to ensure those detained were assessed quickly in a health-based setting and proper training was vital.
The Home Office said it was working on various measures, including a pilot of street triage services where mental health nurses accompany police to incidents.,
But mental health charity, Sane, accused the government of failing to fund psychiatric services, leaving police to "pick up the pieces".
In Northern Ireland, guidelines say police cells should only be used in "exceptional circumstances", and in Scotland, only if a "place of safety" is not immediately available.
In both cases detention should be for the shortest period possible.