Fighting over a TV remote control, damaging a fence and pushing a parent are among the reasons police have unnecessarily arrested children, a report has found.
The report, which focussed on how police hold children and vulnerable adults in custody, said police force policies of taking "positive action" when called to domestic disputes resulted in too many officers feeling they always had to make arrests, even of children.
The report said: "Police officers we spoke to told us that they were called frequently to deal with incidents where parents or children's homes could not cope with a child's disruptive behaviour and sought to use the police as a way to discipline children."
The incidents included one of two sisters being detained following a fight over a TV remote control and a 17-year-old being held for pushing his stepfather and damaging a garden fence.
"Inspectors were particularly concerned to find that when force policies required officers to take 'positive action' in response to reports of domestic abuse, this was interpreted in some forces as always requiring an arrest, even for children," the report added.
In one location, police were called to children's homes nine times and each time the child concerned was arrested, despite the fact they were already in care.
The report, compiled by police inspectorate Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, looked at how police cells are used for children and the mentally unwell as a substitute for social and health care.
Measures of control available to the police are designed more for those who are violent through ill-will rather than for children or mentally ill, HMIC added.
Dru Sharpling, from HMIC, said: "There can be no argument that the needs of a child, left abandoned by his or her parents, or a person in the midst of a mental health crisis, are often very different to those of a serial offender.
"Yet the bricks and mortar of the police cells do not and cannot make that distinction.
"I think the public would be surprised to learn that police cells are very often full of vulnerable adults and children, rather than suspects accused of serious crimes."
What can land children and vulnerable person in police custody
- A young man who was arrested for assault on his father during a schizophrenic episode spent 40 hours in police custody while he waited for a mental health hospital bed to become available. In the end officers took him to an accident and emergency unit because they were so concerned for his safety
- A 90-year-old man who was suffering from dementia and had become violent towards staff in a residential care home, which did not meet his needs, was detained overnight in police custody
- A physically frail detainee, whose first language was not English and who was on prescribed medication, spent 34 hours in custody because of delays in seeing a medical practitioner, and waiting for an appropriate adult
- Two girls aged 14 and 15 who were detained overnight received very little support from staff and, when this was queried by an inspector, the reply was: 'Well, they've been around the block a few times and a few hours in a police cell won't mean that much to them'
- A 13-year-old girl arrived at a custody suite in handcuffs after being transported from another custody suite where she had been detained for some time. The youngster had been escorted by three male officers in the back of a secure van despite her appearing to pose only a minimal risk
- Teenage girls reported 'degrading' and 'unnecessary" experiences of being strip-searched in custody and one detainee said they had to "bend over on all fours like a dog'
- A 13-year-old boy who had been in care since he was six years old was arrested for common assault on his 11-year-old sister and kept in custody for more than 10 hours
- Two 17-year-olds, one of whom had never been in custody before, were booked in at 11pm, and no attempt was made to seek an appropriate adult until after 9am the following morning, even though one appeared fearful and was potentially vulnerable
Dave Tucker, the College of Policing's lead for crime and criminal justice, said: "The HMIC has found that demands placed on frontline police officers and custody staff by people who have a significant need for mental health care and treatment were highly apparent in every force inspected.
"While health, social care and children's services can and do refuse to admit vulnerable people into their care, the police do not have this option.
"Too often police are being used as the service of first resort, rather than the service of last resort and it's encouraging that HMIC acknowledge that police custody should not be the default option for vulnerable people in need of care."
Home Secretary Theresa May said: "I have always been clear that the use of force must be lawful, proportionate and necessary in all the circumstances, that people experiencing a mental health crisis should receive health-based care and support rather than being held in a police cell, and that children who are charged with an offence should be transferred to suitable local authority accommodation instead of being detained overnight in custody."
Deputy Chief Constable Nicholas Ephgrave, who is the national policing lead for custody, said: "We are pleased that HMIC's report acknowledges that the vast majority of vulnerable people detained by police are treated respectfully.
"It also recognises that more needs to be done by our partners in health and social services to prevent vulnerable people ending up in police custody: an outcome which rarely serves the best interests of children, people with mental ill health or dementia.