NSW Parliament Inquires into Alternatives in Dealing with Mental Health Episodes

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Mental health and policing

Since a NSW police officer tasered a 95-year-old woman suffering dementia, who was holding a knife and slowly moving towards him using a walking frame in May, the issue of law enforcement dealing with people having a mental health episode has been front and centre.

Great-grandmother Clare Nowland died a week later in hospital as a result. And a day later, police shot dead another man holding two knives, who appears to have been having an episode, whilst in July, one officer tasered and then another shot a man carrying a knife during a welfare check.

However, this is hardly the first time that NSW police officers have been called upon to perform such duties. Indeed, state law enforcement is the go-to when dealing with people in the community having a mental health crisis, who, instead of excessive force, are rather in need of care.

A question this raises is: why are police officers continuing to be called upon by the state to deal with people in crisis, when the issue is clear? Another is: why is it so hard to get either major party in this state to commit to police reform unless it consists of providing them with more powers?

So, one would expect that these are some of the questions that the newly established mental health accessibility inquiry will be asking. And as NSW Greens MLC Dr Amanda Cohn assures, they will be when the parliamentary inquiry, she’s chairing, convenes to deliberate upon the broader issues.

“Support, not law enforcement”

“It’s clear that police are not the best agency to lead responses to people experiencing acute mental distress, psychosis, delirium, dementia or intoxication,” said Cohn, “and this is why the terms of reference of the inquiry are specifically examining alternative approaches.”

“Devastating and heart-wrenching events, like the shooting of a man during a welfare check and the tasering of a 95-year-old woman, raise this issue over and over again,” the NSW Greens health spokesperson told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

The NSW mental health accessibility inquiry is looking into making mental health services more accessible similar to regular healthcare and making them culturally safe for diverse groups, as well as probing into the issue of sending out those in blue to respond to these incidents.

According to Cohn, reforms aren’t happening after a particular incident as “agencies can respond defensively and avoid accusations or admission of wrongdoing”, whereas the inquiry won’t be delving into a single incident or placing blame but will rather inquire into “a systemic approach”.

“The presence of police can have a significant negative impact on people’s lives even in situations that don’t make the headlines,” said the Greens MLC.

“I’ve heard that a woman was evicted from a rental property after her landlord saw her being ‘taken away’ in a police car, when she’d called emergency services for mental health support and was being transported to hospital.”

The impact on both sides

Callousness plays a part, at times, during these incidents. That’s obvious in the details of the tasering of Nowland, and it’s also been apparent, blatantly so, during the inquest into the 2019 police shooting of Todd McKenzie. On the later occasion, officers that knew the man were taunting him.

“Police officers are not mental health professionals,” Cohn made clear. “I’ve heard over and over again stories where the presence of police escalated the distress of a vulnerable person rather than deescalating the situation.”

The GP pointed to the 2023 statement of London Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley, who, as he was launching a new initiative to deal with mental health crises, the Right Care Right Person model, stressed that Londoners were being failed on two levels.

Rowley said that his agency has been failing the community “by sending police officers, not medical professionals, to those in mental health crisis, and expecting them to do their best in circumstances where they are not the right people to be dealing with the patient”.

The top cop said Londoners were further being failed, as this system of dealing with mental health episodes is taking up large amounts of law enforcement time, which could be better applied to searching for the real crooks, all because there was a missing service.

Another issue in NSW is that because this reliance on police to deal with people having a mental health crisis really only garners attention after an extreme incident, the public responds in anger towards the officers involved and further criticises the NSW Police Force as a whole.

Yet, little mention is ever given to the many officers who aren’t comfortable with being put in these situations. To them, their seniors are sending them out to deal with someone wielding a knife and, in the moment, untrained officers don’t know if they’re dealing with a threat or a call for help.

Shooting dead a fellow person in the line of duty is something that impacts police officers for the rest of their lives, and this is especially so, if they find out later on that the person they’ve killed wasn’t really the threat that they’d perceived.

Yet, as NSW police commissioner Karen Webb said following the tasering of Nowland, “The role of a police officer seems to be growing wider and wider and we are expected to know everything about everything – and we are not experts on everything.”

The commissioner then outlined that she’d ordered a review of police training with a particular focus on dementia, which again is avoiding the real issue.

Alternatives are operating

A common reaction within the community when the question of taking a different approach to these episodes rather than sending in the troops, is that people instantly dismiss the idea, asserting that there aren’t any alternatives.

But, as Dr Cohn points out, there are different health-oriented options already operating.

“There are great examples of alternatives, both in other Australian jurisdictions and overseas,” she said. “The Police, Ambulance and Clinical Early Response (PACER) program, which has been trialled already in NSW, partners mental health clinicians with police officers.”

The Greens MLC explain that the ACT PACER team sees “a paramedic, mental health clinician and police officer respond to mental health emergencies in an unmarked vehicle”, and this is being rolled out in Tasmania too. While there’s also the MH CORE initiative mental health clinicians in SA.

But the question remains as to whether the NSW Police Force and the Police Association of NSW really want to let go of this role they’ve long entertained in the community, and whether the Minns government will take the moment afforded to it to improve community safety for all.

“These programs have all been really well received by the community and have the added benefit that far fewer people are transported to hospital emergency departments,” Dr Cohn underscored in conclusion.

“I’m hopeful that the inquiry will be able to make strong recommendations to the government that can catalyse meaningful reform.”

Submissions to the Equity, accessibility and appropriate delivery of outpatient and community mental health care in New South Wales inquiry closed on Wednesday. However, it’s open to receive any late submissions.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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