A shortage of ambulances means cash-strapped police forces had to take mental health patients to hospital in almost half of all crisis cases.
The Mental Health Code of Practice says a patient in crisis should only ever be transferred to hospital by an NHS vehicle.
But the government has revealed, after a parliamentary question by Labour, that in 48% of crisis cases last year a police car was the only option.
Overall, police transported mental health patients to medics in 52% of incidents where an emergency Section 136 order, of the Mental Health Act, was made.
Ministers also admitted that, despite police transporting 9,712 people in crisis, no assessment of how mental health patients have been affected by the experience has been ordered.
It comes as police forces in England and Wales face their ninth consecutive year of budget cuts this year, having lost around 21,000 frontline officers since 2010.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary reported in November that forces had been left to “pick up the pieces of a broken mental health system” as well as tackle crime, with London’s Met Police, the UK’s largest force, taking a mental health every four minutes.
People who are in mental health crisis are patients in need of expert medical care, they are not suspects who require police interventionSimon Kempton, operational policing lead, Police Federation of England and Wales
Home Secretary Sajid Javid told the Police Federation last year “I’m listening and I get it” after police chiefs called for more frontline staff to cope not only with the rise in mental health cases but a spike in violent crime.
But HuffPost UK revealed last week that a police pensions blackhole meant that the latest £330m government funding settlement in fact delivers an £8m cash-terms cut.
Shadow mental health minister Paula Sherriff, said “it is a scandal that should shame this government” that vulnerable people experiencing “one of the most difficult moments of their lives” are being transported into police cars.
Simon Kempton, operational policing lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales, said the figures laid bare how austerity was “putting some of society’s most vulnerable people at risk”.
He said: “People who are in mental health crisis are patients in need of expert medical care, they are not suspects who require police intervention – in fact in some instances the presence of police officers can escalate the situation making it more stressful for all involved.”
He added mental health crisis cases were time-consuming and left officers with less time to investigate and deal with other emergencies.
Alison Cobb, specialist policy advisor with the mental health charity Mind said people were more likely to reach crisis point if they don’t get help early on and NHS services had “underfunded for decades”.
“It’s not acceptable that police vehicles are routinely used to transport
people in crisis situations to places of safety because there aren’t enough ambulances,” she said. “The police are often first on the scene if someone is in crisis. But they need the right support from the NHS to make sure someone in crisis gets the help they need.”
Responding to the figures, Policing Minister Nick Hurd said: “The Home Office has not made an assessment of the impact of transporting people with mental health issues in a police car. The Mental Health Code of Practice states that a health vehicle should be used to transport mental health detainees.
“The Home Office are working with health and police partners to understand why police cars are used to transport people in 52% of cases and what further can be done to reduce this figure. The welfare of those the police come into contact with is paramount, and officers will be aware of this and treat people appropriately.”