Cops called to mental health unit 777 times in three years

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Police have been called to the Tauranga Mental Health Unit 777 times in three years – with the most serious call-outs for abduction, sexual assault, drugs, theft, dangerous acts and harassment.

Figures obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA) from the New Zealand Police show the incidents occurred from July 2014 to July 2017.

The data reveals a large proportion of the calls related to follow-up and prevention (499) but the Taxpayers’ Union queried the cost and frequency while the Police Association raised concerns about its members dealing with mental health patients.

Bay of Plenty District Health Board chief operating officer Pete Chandler said legally there was only so much that could be done in terms of restraint in the hospital environment and beyond that, a policing response was required.

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”The police will be called if a situation has reached that point. The police will also be called for incidents which are not related to threats on staff or patients such as theft or car damage for example.”

But the Taxpayers’ Union said calling the police so regularly was an expensive way of dealing with “what appears to be in some cases routine incidences… they should be geared up to handle it’.’

Data from the Bay of Plenty District Health Board also released under the OIA reveals aggression against staff in the mental health unit had jumped from 52 incidents in 2014, to 84 in 2016 and 65 to August 2017.

Staff were subject to verbal abuse, insults, threats of physical violence, attempted assaults, throwing an object at staff, pushing and punching, kicking walls, doors and breaking windows and light fittings.

In August, hospital employees leaked emails to this newspaper which raised safety fears after attacks by patients high on P or synthetic cannabis.

The accusations followed a Bay of Plenty Times article that showed 200 patients had been locked in seclusion rooms in the psychiatric unit at Tauranga Hospital in the past three years – one patient spent 173 hours and 53 minutes in a room.

Bay of Plenty District Health Board governance and quality general manager Gail Bingham said since January 2017 one staff member was off work for three shifts as a result of bruising after being pushed over and falling.

The ward was also at capacity for 200 days in 2016 and 154 days in 2017 to August and it did not record information on people high on P or synthetic cannabis despite staff raising concerns.

Regional director for the Waikato Bay of Plenty Police Association Scott Thompson said the association was concerned its members were not specifically trained in mental health.

”If they don’t have sufficient staff to keep themselves safe and their security staff can’t do it, who do you call? You call the police.

”Everyone wants better help out there for mental health, everyone wants more police and prisons but no one wants to pay for it so where do you cut the cloth, you can’t have it all.”

Mr Thompson joined the force in the 1980s when they were closing down so-called mental asylums … ”and, yes, not everyone that was in those institutions should have been there but not everyone that was in those institutions should have been in the wider community either”.

Acting Western Bay of Plenty Area Commander Karl Wright-St Clair said police would always have a role to play when someone was under significant mental distress, especially when someone threatened to harm themselves or others.

It did not take away from resources, but ”fits in with our day-to-day work within our communities”, he said.

A police mental health team was established in July 2014 to improve the force’s response to people experiencing mental distress, he said.

”Police must prioritise the calls for assistance that come in and they are triaged. Each call and each case has to be assessed and prioritised on the information available to police at the time.”

Two officers commonly attend most events, however, this could vary depending on the type of incident.

A hospital employee, who asked not to be named, said most incidents were internal.

”I am personally in favour of implementing increased security resources to protect staff, our attending colleagues who handle duress calls, and the general public who may stray into a violent offenders path.”

Police call-outs to Tauranga Hospital
* July 2014 to July 2017 Main Hospital – 1950
* July 2014 to July 2017 Mental Health Unit – 777
* Assaults main hospital – 11, with one court action
* Assaults mental health unit – nine, with two court actions – Source NZ Police

Police talk
* Follow-up includes occurrences that involve police gathering information, advising relatives, following up on lost/found property etc.
* Prevention activities include occurrences that involve police patrols, crime prevention advice.
* Response includes occurrences that involve police attending mental health and threatens/attempts suicide incidents as well as sudden deaths, alarm soundings. Source NZ Police

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