The New South Wales government is being urged to change how agencies respond to vulnerable people after recent deaths following interactions with police.
- A solicitor says deploying police to certain incidents can make the situation worse
- The police minister is backing reviews into the service’s mental health responses
- The Police Association of NSW says officers are being relied on too heavily and that health services should be more involved
Earlier this year 95-year-old Clare Nowland died a week after allegedly being tasered by police in her nursing home at Cooma.
Newcastle woman Krista Kach, 47, died last month after being hit by a beanbag round following a 10-hour stand-off with officers.
Redfern Legal Centre senior solicitor Sam Lee said it had become clear that police should not be the first to respond to such incidents.
“The clients that we get in our practice have concerns for their safety and wellbeing, and sometimes those concerns relate to previous interactions they’ve had with police,” she said.
“If they see police show up on their doorstep that can feed into existing anxieties and make them very fearful.
“[They can] react in ways that may be harmful to themselves.”
Call for focus to shift
Ms Lee said mental health professionals should be the first to respond to welfare and community treatment order checks.
“Police are called out not because someone has committed a crime, but because someone has called triple-0, concerned about a person’s welfare,” she said.
“For this very reason the focus should be on health rather than law and order.”
In 2018 NSW health and NSW Police entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that outlined how agencies collaborated when delivering services to people with mental health problems.
Ms Lee said the MOU did not assume police should be first responders in mental health situations, but officers were still being sent out.
“What we want is for the NSW government to look at that MOU, see what is in place and to honour that agreement,” she said.
“Put health professionals at the very forefront of this discussion and see what other model we can come up with.”
Mental health review
NSW Police is reviewing deployments to mental health incidents after responding to 64,000 of them last year.
As part of the process a superintendent is being sent to the UK to observe the model of first response used there.
The review will also examine the Police Ambulance and Clinical Early Response program (PACER), which allows police to request mental health clinicians to provide advice during incidents.
PACER operates in 18 police districts, most of which are in Sydney, and an adapted virtual program operates in four regional and rural local health districts.
Police Minister Yasmin Catley said the review was adequate, despite recent calls for an inquiry into the police response to vulnerable people.
“I think we should let this work happen and see where we land,” she said.
“The police officer who is going over [to the UK] is very senior — she is a qualified nurse, a qualified police officer and a qualified psychiatrist.”
Over-reliance on police?
George Newhouse is chief executive of the National Justice Project, a litigation service that aims to eradicate discrimination.
He said PACER was not wholly available across the state and that it required police to take a medical approach to incidents, which was at odds with their training.
“It relies on police to engage with health services or other services,” Mr Newhouse said.
“That relies on police to actually consider the situation carefully, want to de-escalate and not criminalise the subject of their attention.”
Mr Newhouse said there were better models overseas, such as the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets – CAHOOTS – program in the US state of Oregon, where teams with a medic and crisis worker were used as an alternative to a police response for non-violent crises.
“Similarly, there’s the [Support Team Assisted Response – STAR] program in Denver — they diverted 2,500 people away from police and they did that extremely successfully,” he said.
Police Association of NSW president Kevin Morton said NSW Health needed more funding so it could respond to incidents involving vulnerable people.
“The police involved in these matters are dealing with people that have had the system fail them,” he said.
“They are attending mental health incidents more and more regularly … for what really should be done by NSW Health or mental health experts.”
Get our local newsletter, delivered free each Wednesday
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-10-05/calls-for-change-to-mental-health-responses-in-nsw/102901076 Tasering, beanbag-round deaths spark calls for changes to mental health responses in NSW