Mental health nurses join forces with police in new scheme to reduce 'protective custody' cases

The mental health street triage team scheme has proved a massive success Credit: ITV News

A pilot scheme sending police officers out on patrol with specially-trained mental health nurses has proved such a success it is being rolled out across the country.

Originally launched by the Department of Health at nine forces in a bid to reduce the numbers being taken into protective custody, more than 20 others have now decided to fund the street triage teams.

ITV News Health Editor Rachel Younger spent the day with the team at Sussex Police.

Its 3pm on a warm summer's afternoon when PC James Mackintosh arrives for work at a Sussex police station. With a no-nonsense attitude and shoes you can see your face in, he's unmistakeably a cop.

But his partner on the late shift isn't. Alun Shere-Jones is a slightly crumpled, softly spoken Welshman.

He's also a mental health nurse.

Between them, this unlikely partnership has managed to transform the way police deal with some of the county's most vulnerable inhabitants.

Last year, Sussex Police was criticized for detaining the highest number of people sectioned under the Mental Health Act. In 2014 alone, the force was responsible for almost one in five of everyone across England and Wales taken to police cells instead of hospital beds.

Yet even that was an improvement. Between 2010 and 2011, more than 1,200 people were taken into custody there - by last year that figure had fallen to 710.

It's a drop police chiefs believe is down to the work done by people like Alun and James on the mental health street triage team.

Read: Turned away by three hospitals, suicidal woman forced to spend the night in police cell

Alun Shere-Jones and PC James Mackintosh are part of the Sussex Police mental health street triage team Credit: ITV News

This evening, Alun is on the phone to a woman the two men picked up the night before at a local suicide "black spot". He wants to make sure the home support team he arranged turned up at her house.

For twenty minutes, he gently tries to persuade the woman to take the help on offer.

But PC Mackintosh's radio is already crackling with new calls coming in.

The team has been asked to head into Eastbourne after a call from a concerned relative whose brother has been posting on Facebook after a row with his girlfriend.

He's threatening to deliberately smash his motorbike into anyone he can find.

The triage team may not have a marked patrol car, nor blue lights or sirens, but they're soon on their way to the man's address. It's on the side of town where sheets hang at windows and old fridges lie in gardens, but his flatmates say he's not at home.

PC Mackintosh starts the car to begin a local search but before it can begin, the team's called on again.

A police patrol has stumbled across a midde-aged woman sitting on the edge of the road in an isolated location, refusing to give any personal details.

Ten minutes later, Alan, who has met the woman before and knows about her mental health problems, is sitting alongside her in the back of the car.

Life has become too much, she tells him, she's trying to juggle looking after her kids with the care of her mother who has just been diagnosed with dementia.

Alun doesn't say much, but listens intently before recommending a respite centre, run by a local charity. It's enough. After the best part of an hour, the woman agrees to be taken back to her home by the patrol that first spotted her.

She wouldn't talk to them, but sees Alun - who isn't a police officer - differently.

It was a late finish for Alun and PC Mackintosh Credit: ITV News

By now, night has fallen and the streets are growing ever emptier. There is still time for one more call, however - just as the shift is due to end at 11pm.

On the quiet outskirts of town, a woman has been threatening to stab her neighbour.

When Alun and PC Mackintosh arrive, she doesn't hold back. "I'm going to kill him, " she screams. "I don't care if I get arrested."

In less experienced hands, she might well have ended up in custody for her own protection - another sad statistic for those suffering a mental health crisis.

Instead, Alun and PC Mackintosh calmly suggest that going to stay with a friend might defuse the situation. Astonishingly, the woman eventually agrees.

She's too volatile for me to ask, but there is clearly something about Alun and Mac that inspires her trust.

For them, a call like this means a 35 minute drive away from headquarters just as they should be clocking off. But they get on with it without a word.

They are both young fathers with no chance of a lie-in to recover from their late finish. But they know the difference they're making can be measured in more than statistics.