An independent report found “failures in systems, misjudgments or errors by individuals” and “discrimination” by officers that led to the deaths of people with mental health problems.
The study by Lord Adebowale, chief executive of the charity Turning Point, identified 50 people with a mental health issue who had died after contact with the Met in the five years up to 2012.
The majority of deaths were suicides but five involved people who had been physically restrained by police officers.
The independent commission was launched last year at the request of the Met Commissioner after a spate of deaths in custody involving people with a mental health illness, in particular the case of musician Sean Rigg.
The commission, whose members include senior health professionals, a chief constable and a senior lawyer, made 28 recommendations for improving the way police deal with mental health issues.
In the hard-hitting report published today the panel highlights the scale of the problem in London, with figures showing an estimated 15 to 25 per cent of all incidents dealt with by police were linked to mental health.
This equates to 1,626 calls to police every day.
Officers estimated that 20 per cent of their time was involved in dealing with mental health issues.
The study found there were “examples of good professional conduct where police officers were prompt, compassionate and patient” but shortcomings were due to failures in “systems and procedures” as well as the behaviour of individual officers.
The panel declared there were shortcomings in policies, training programmes, leadership and operational processes.
In particular, the report highlights the failure of the Met’s 999 call-handling centre in dealing effectively with mental health calls, a lack of mental health awareness among staff and officers, lack of training in suicide prevention for frontline officers, a “disproportionate” use of force and restraint and poor communication between police and the NHS. The study also criticises the Met’s internal culture, discriminatory attitudes, poor record keeping and a failure to communicate with families.
It says some people with mental health issues complained they were treated like criminals by the police.
The study says disproportionate use of force by police was the most disturbing finding. There were several cases involving black people where it was questionable whether there was a need for the level of force used.
The inquiry found a disproportionate percentage of people from black or ethnic minority communities died where police had been “to some degree, at fault”.
Lord Adebowale said today: “This report is tough reading for the Met. It is tough because people have died.
“I started this piece of work thinking that mental health is not a police problem but I have come to realise that it should be at the core of policing. One in four Britons suffer from mental health challenges at some point.
“The one thing the police have to do is to take this seriously. The commissioner needs to send a message throughout the force that this is not a peripheral issue.”
He added: “Race is an issue but I am not calling the police racists. However, we found evidence of racist attitudes in one case and we found a disproportionate number of Afro-Carribean young men were being subjected to forcible restraint.”
The recommendations include better mental health awareness training and training in the use of restraint of people with a mental illness. The study praised transport police for setting up a “strategic suicide prevention team”.
Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said he broadly accepted the Commission’s findings.
He said : “Lord Adebowale’s report provides powerful evidence of the challenges that mental health issues present to the Metropolitan Police.
“It sets out clearly the frequency with which our officers are asked to support people at times of mental health crisis.
“I set up this Commission to help us improve the way we deal with these challenges. We now have an opportunity to make significant progress.”
Time is right for change, say families
The families of two young men who died after being restrained by police gave a cautious welcome to Lord Adebowale’s report but urged the Met to turn words into action.
Sean Rigg, 40, died from a cardiac arrest at Brixton police station in 2008, while IT graduate Olaseni Lewis, 23, died in 2010 after collapsing during prolonged restraint by police at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham.
Today their relatives said the report was a step in the right direction.
Many of its key criticisms, such as the police’s lack of mental health awareness and training, were “obvious” and had been flagged up by earlier, similar reports, they said.
But they also agreed that in light of the spotlight shone on the Met, and police forces in general, because of the phone-hacking and Jimmy Savile child abuse scandals and the Hillsborough report, and with Met commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe’s apparent keenness to bring about change, the time could be different.
Marcia Rigg-Samuel, from Mitcham, who is Mr Rigg’s sister, said: “I think it is a report that is definitely highlighting the fundamental and systemic failures within mental health and policing and as such we welcome the report. I am just hoping that the Metropolitan Police implements the report’s recommendations because if they do there will be change and deaths in custody of people with mental health issues will be reduced.”
Mr Lewis’s mother Ajibola Lewis, from South Norwood, added: “I hope that Bernard Hogan-Howe is serious and that he means to do something about this problem and that the report is not just a talking shop.
“One feels that he wants to make changes, but I’m not holding my breath. There have been reports before, which like this one stated obvious failings within the police, and those have been shelved.”