Law, Health | Australia

26 September 2022

With the community’s mental health worsening over time, Australia has inadvertently tasked its police with a job they should not be asked to do, Vernon White writes.

Over the past 20 years, policing in Australia has changed dramatically.

But unlike past periods of transformation, this has not come from changes in legislation or court decisions that affect the scope of policing. This time, it is expectation from the public for better policing that has demanded change.

It has had a dramatic effect on the way policing is provided, and without intervention, could set up policing to fail.

There is growing pressure being placed on police to focus not on traditional police work, like investigating organised crime and protecting order in the community. Instead, police are increasingly called upon to perform what are essentially mental health care interventions.

More than a law enforcement agency, policing has become responsible for addressing widespread societal challenges that police forces that are not readily equipped to handle.

For decades now, the mental health system has been unable to meet growing this demand for care. Australia’s collective response has failed to build enough capacity or capability to manage risks and deal with this demand.

Brought about by a shift in mental health care from institutionalisation to community-based models, people experiencing mental illness now encounter police much more regularly. When this happens, things don’t always go well.

The fact that Australia continues to identify these encounters as caused by the execution of the police response, rather than by a deeper division of labour problem, is causing massive issues.

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As overall mental ill-health proliferates, police providing first responses to mental health crises will proliferate too. A recent report published in July 2022 identifies that this is particularly acute among specific age groups, particularly younger people, and in Indigenous communities.

It also shows that police are responding to large numbers of mental health calls, and that officers often don’t have the time or training to manage this in a way that is respectful of the caller and the problem.

For those who argue that police forces simply need to better train the police to manage this challenge, the stark reality is that this is a poor use of police resources. An officer should not be expected to be a policing and security professional and a mental health professional at the same time. Trained mental health experts with strong knowledge and experience should be the ones on the front line.

A recent book published in Canada looks at this specifically, and argues that a use of police resources to meet a problem that is health-related, rather than crime-related, is negatively impacting both patients and law enforcement.

It also identifies that managing mental illness at the community level has become one of the wicked problems facing policing.

More on this: Rethinking the police’s role in mental health support

So, not only is this problem being handled by the wrong professionals, but because police need to protect their status in the community, negativity directed toward police for the way these situations are often handled then further distracts from their core work of public safety.

While some mental health crises would fall into the category of endangering public safety, the vast majority would not.

Because Australia has failed to explicitly ask itself what police should actually do, it has inadvertently tasked them with a large responsibility for one of the most difficult tasks in health care, mental health crisis response. This is increasingly a problem in other countries too.

The truly wicked problem emerges when police are blamed for the job they do when handling these situations, but then nothing it is done to address the root causes of the issue. Police in many countries have called for increased mental health resources to deal with this, and they must be listened to.

If the Australian community wants to see an effective response to the growing issue of mental health, the most important thing isn’t to ‘better train’ police. While this is as an admirable goal in general and may provide some benefits, Australian policymakers need to address the systemic problem beneath police response issues. They need to invest in training many more frontline mental health professionals and increase the capacity and capability of those currently in the health system.

Continuing to approach this problem in the same way into the future will only ever address its symptoms, leaving the disease that causes them untreated.

Of course, reform would not totally remove the police from mental health crisis response – and nor should it, as police are often required to support and protect professionals engaged in this work. Police reform that puts officers firmly in this supporting role, rather than asking them to lead the response to a huge range of complex mental health challenges, will ultimately make Australia a safer and more healthy place.

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