Why the police silenced one of the best officers in Britain

18 February 2014

West Midlands Police’s announcement that it had ordered the closure of the blog and Twitter account of Inspector Michael Brown – ‘the mental health cop’ – has caused astonishment and anger in equal measure.

Thousands of grateful patients, police officers and doctors have followed Brown online ever since he realised that he had had only two hours of mental health training. He decided to remedy his ignorance in 2011. He went about finding ways to cut deaths in custody by ‘providing officers with information about how to handle mental health calls and to manage clinical risks’.

Numerous prizes, including the Mind Digital Media award, followed. Everyone loved him apart from the Corporate Communications Department at the West Midlands Police. Assistant Chief Constable Garry Forsyth, who is responsible for ‘customer services’, said last week that he was investigating Brown for ‘misuse of a force [Twitter] account’. Breaches of police rules on officers’ talking to the public would, he continued, be ‘taken extremely seriously’. What crime could have the apparently altruistic Brown have committed?

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The Mail, Guardian and Mirror ran the story, but could not say why the brass had sent in the heavy squad.

Here is a sequence of events no one has noticed. On 4 February, West Midland Police’s corporate PRs had a publicity coup. The BBC’s One Show filled prime time television with a puff piece about its ‘street triage’ scheme, in which a nurse accompanies officers on patrol and decides whether to send a mentally ill person home, to hospital or to the cells.

The BBC‘s reporter, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, was impressed. His mentally ill cousin had died in police custody 10 years ago. ‘At long last I’m glad to see something has been done,’ he said.

Inspector Brown was not so sure. On his now banned blog, he wrote that ‘a nurse in a car with a cop’ may not be the best solution. (The police may have closed it down but you can read a lifted extract here) Mentally ill and handicapped people in trouble needed pathways to ‘available, accessible and responsive health services’, which could provide places of safety. As the One Show was broadcasting, he tweeted on his now banned Twitter account that street triage could not be the answer if the ‘police’s place of safety pathways aren’t working properly’. (If you google ‘mentalhealthcop and triage’ you can see some of them )

This was hardly a vicious critique, but if it was too much for the West Midlands Police to bear its subsequent behaviour would be scandalous. Because as things stands it looks as if his officious superiors could not tolerate intelligent argument about a PR campaign. Rather than allowing a good man, who has helped thousands of people, openly debate a matter of public health and public importance, they shut him up, closed him down and threatened him with disciplinary proceedings.

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  • Marie Louise Noonan

    The blog’s still up.

    ”one of the best officers in Britain’? Enough with the hyperbole already!

  • Colonel Mustard

    I’m really not happy with the idea of public officers becoming ‘celebrities’ and addressing the public directly with their personal opinions as it relates to their public office. Probably too old fashioned for that but I remember when any such activity would have constituted ‘conduct likely to bring the public service into disrepute’ – however meritorious it might be. A disciplined service should be just that and not a free for all.

    • ButcombeMan

      Quite right and why is the Officer described as one of the “best officers in Britain”.

      Who is making that judgement?

      If there is a policy in operation and Inspector Michael Brown claims special insight & experience or thinks it could/should, be changed or improved, the correct way for him to express his view, is internally, not externally to the public.

      If he does not like the policy and feels strongly enough, he should resign.

      Inspectors do not make Constabulary Policy. If they all behaved like him it would be anarchy.

      • iDeb8

        ButcombeMan –

        So you think that, if all Inspectors behaved like Michael Brown, anarchy would result? How do you justify that assertion?

        You suppose only those among the high echelons of large organisations merit the freedom to express their views regarding its policies?

        You believe all staff of lower rank should be silenced, as whistleblowers perennially are?

        You regard “letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is..” not a “..policy for promoting progress”?

        You think the success of the Germany economy has been nothing to do with their much more inclusive and cooperative attitude to the opinions of employees at all levels?

        You think anyone having the temerity to challenge by public discussion or argument the entrenched views of a few should just resign, leaving yes-men and a climate of fear to engulf and paralyse the lower ranks?

        If hoping to attract young recruits or anyone with a modicum of spirit or intelligence, your stifling views will just be seen as leading an organisation down an archaic Victorian blind alley, sucking any life from another three hundred if they acquiesce to ride into such another valley of brain death.

        • ButcombeMan

          Whenever somone in pursuit of their position tells me “what I think”, I usually conclude they are trolling and inadequate to debate in adult fashion.

          I have told you how, within a disciplined structure, this Officer can contribute to any policy debate.

          Junior officers like him in a disciplined service cannot be the final arbiters of organisational policy, nor should they stroke their own egos by circumventing the disciplinary code.

    • Matthew Blott

      Fair enough but then they shouldn’t be appearing on the One Show either.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    The Mail, Guardian and Mirror ran the story, but could not say why the brass had sent in the heavy squad.

    In my view, the difficulties are probably due to the effects of a simple personality clash. ie between a seemingly jealous corporate personality of the Pol;ice communications set-up and the capacity of a true public service worker – a policeman – to go the extra mile to help other members of the general public.

    There’s no contest really is there?

  • Doran

    The question we should all be asking is why the police are having to do the job of Mental Health Services in the first place? Michael Brown’s blog and twitter a/c were fantastic and he actually cares about what happens to people with mental health problems and the difficulties the police face when dealing with incidents. Let’s campaign to get his accounts reinstated as soon as possible – he is an outstanding advocate for mental health issues and West Midlands Police Force. Then we should be making sure that MHS look after their service users instead of leaving it to the police. It is in the best interests of the person with MH issues to get the care they need and deserve. Being arrested, detained and criminalised because they are the “poor relative” of the health service is unacceptable in a so called civilised society.

  • ButcombeMan

    A very interesting debate.

    The nurse in the car with the cop may be uncomfortable but the nurse needs protection from often very unstable and potentially violent people. We would need to be very cautious about taking advice from and treating as unavoidably correct, the words of one individual Police Officer, however well meaning.

    An issue that concerns me though, is the CAUSE of so many mental health issues impacting on Policing.

    I would be every surprised if illegal (cannabis particulary) and legal, (alcohol particularly) drugs, are not heavily involved in causing the mental problems for so many people.

    This is a hardly discussed downside of more drugs use in society. The drug legalisation lobby do not want to talk about it.

  • zanzamander

    This is the same West Midlands Police that arrested programme makers of a documentary exposing hate preachers in mosques on the grounds of upsetting the local multicultural sensibilities but didn’t lift a finger to stop the hate mongers.

    WMP have got their priorities upside down.

    After the Plebgate that exposed the corruption in the Metropolitan police force that everyone knew existed and the shenanigans of other forces, is it any wonder that trust in the local plod is at an all time low.

    Along with the politicians, bankers, estate agents, police are now the black sheep of our society.

    • In2minds

      Spot on!

    • Dragonfighter

      WMP have been at it for a long time, just check their record on Hillsborough and their actions regarding the meeting held between Andrew Mitchell and the representatives of the Police Federation

    • IainRMuir

      Since you enjoy sweeping generalisations, here’s another for you:

      NHS deaths – doctors and nurses.

  • Raw England

    Firstly, Benjamin Zephanya is a black nationalist/black power type, which straight away makes that segment of the situation rancid.

    Secondly, this filthy multicultural society has failed. Badly. Very badly. And the repulsive pressures and horrific strains its having on the native population is, predictably, causing people to mentally break down. Further, the sick policy of austerity (again, caused by immigration/multiculturalism) is the final nail, and is inflicting systematic mental and physical suffering, misery and death.

    To sustain this sick horror show, the police and other bodies have grabbed huge power, and now act as literal totalitarian Storm Troopers.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Benjamin Zephaniah is not what you say. He’s not much of poet but he is not what you say. I know him a little. You don’t know him at all.

      • Raw England

        Apologies if he’s your friend, Fergus.

        But NO apologies for the remarks. I’ve researched him. Seen him speak. He’s black Nationalist. And he states the standard FILTH: “Britain is an immigrant country; immigrants BUILT Britain”.

        Nuff said, really?

  • sfin

    A classic and all too sad example of how Leadership has been replaced by Management in all areas of public and private services, forces and industries (including, in my own experience, the armed forces).

    Management is a science, and can be taught. Leadership is an art, and cannot. The fact that our police constabularies contain a “corporate communications department” and an Assistant Chief Constable (no less) is in charge of “customer services” is utterly laughable to me (remember me, Mr Plod? Joe Public, the one you’re supposed to be serving…). Management produces a stream of twenty somethings with MBAs or equivalents – all newly qualified experts in running companies, or giving political advice, and who have never actually been a part of the lower hierarchy of those fields in which they are now “expert”. They can meet “targets”, fill “quotas” and respond to “focus groups” – but ask them to make a decision, based on instinct, or, dare I say it, personal judgement, then they inevitably make a horlicks of everything

    But what do we expect? Since 1992 we have voted in a succession of Managers to run (I won’t say “lead”) our nation, none of whom has had a leadership bone in their bodies.

    P.S. Does anyone know what a “Police’s place of safety pathway” is?

    • Dougie

      Leadership can certainly be taught. Some people will be better pupils than others, just as with any skill.

      • sfin

        I beg to differ. Without getting into an argument on definitions, my original point was that the attempt to quantify and categorise “leadership” as an academic subject changes that instinctive art into the science of management.

        What management School did Thatcher or Churchill or even Attlee attend? What defined the premierships of these leaders (whether you agreed with their policies or not) was unquantifiable, hard to define qualities such as vision, drive, commitment and the, completely undefinable quality, of getting others to work hard at achieving your vision.

        You cannot teach it to the level required to say, run a police constabulary (let alone a country). The problem is that our establishment thinks you can – a first in PPE or Law from Oxbridge being a prerequisite, nowadays for anyone aspiring to high office (Churchill, having flunked out of Harrow, wouldn’t get a look in nowadays). The academics have taken over and the result is that our police constabularies now have “corporate communications departments” – they provide a “service” instead of enforcing the law and some bright spark broke through the glass ceiling and exercised some blue sky thinking to provide our police officers with “place of safety pathways” (someone please enlighten me on this!)

        • Regislea

          Churchill – Sandhurst

          Thatcher – Oxford

          Atlee – Oxford

      • Colonel Mustard

        The “mechanical” techniques of leadership can be taught but not the indefinable spirit that sets natural leaders apart.

        • telemachus

          Kier Hardie
          Clem Attlee
          Neil Kinnock
          Gordon Brown
          Ed Balls

          • Colonel Mustard


            1. The act of provoking or inciting.
            2. Something that provokes.

            Not very edifying, even for you. Try growing up – God knows you are old enough.

          • sfin

            All opinion of course – but here goes:

            Lenin? Check.
            Stalin? – Hmm…an oppressor who inherits the tools of oppression does not a leader make.
            Castro? – Hmm…yeah OK.
            Kier Hardie? Check.
            Clem Attlee? Check.
            Kinnock, Brown and Balls? Oh come on!

            • telemachus

              Kinnock had the charisma to rescue us from the Foot lows and paved the way for the abolition of Clause 4
              Ed Balls time is coming
              Watch him carefully

        • sfin

          Hear! Hear! – and the mechanical techniques of leadership is called management!

    • ButcombeMan

      Leadership skills CAN be taught, principles of any human skill can be taught. This is self evident truth.

      Sandhurst does it very well.

      Also self evident that some individuals absorb those skills better than others and some individuals have natural & intuitive leadership ability.

      There is no inconsistency.

      • sfin

        Correction – Sandhurst USED to do it very well when it looked for “Leadership qualities”, above all else in it’s entrants.

        Graduates used to be in the minority at Sandhurst and these entrants were usually destined for the specialist, technical arms like medicine or engineering. A candidate used to be selected for proven leadership qualities, such as captain of sports or school prefect/ head boy etc. A young officer would join his regiment/ battalion at age 19 or 20 and couldn’t reach his majority before the age of 32. This gave him or her plenty of time to develop those qualities at the coal face (and have a lot fun in the process) before he reached sub unit command – where management starts to kick in.

        Now graduates are the vast majority. A young officer can be 24 years old by the time he reaches “the front line” – having spent his entire adult life, to date, in training. He can now reach his majority age 28 and most young officers spend their time between jumping through a series of academic management hoops in order to reach Major in the quickest possible time.

        Leadership in our armed forces has taken a nose dive – take a look at the performance of our higher command over the last 10-15 years.

        • Colonel Mustard

          And of course there is the career rubber stamping that tends to elevate the conformist yes men.

        • ButcombeMan

          The seeds of the destruction of your own dogmatic position that “leadership cannot be taught” are in what you write above. You have gone off at a tangent to cover your confusion.

          • sfin

            On the contrary, the example I give (from my own experience) highlights how academic management has taken over where we used to have leadership.

            Compare the standing of, say, nurses and police officers in the eyes of the public, thirty years ago with today. Our “angels” and “the thin blue line” of yore have all but disappeared.

            The difference is that thirty years ago, those organisations were led. Now they are managed.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Sadly those difficult to measure and quantify qualities of instinct, experience and nouse are now largely frowned upon. If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it so they say and the rot set in when industrial production management techniques (those that were so successful for British industry – not) found safe havens in every other walk of life including public service. The emphasis on statistics is now firmly established in universities too and has grown apace with the decline in spelling and use of English, the beauty of our language now subverted by the bean counters creed.

      Bear in mind that Cameron is basically a bean counter’s PR man and there you have it.

      Gone too is the discretion that was so much a part of successful decision making. Top down directives and all decisions referred up for back covering is now the norm.

    • Latimer Alder

      ‘Police’s place of safety pathway’ is just another bit of PC corporate-speak designed to exclude the public’s understanding of what our public services are doing to us.

      The cops and the NHS and all the ‘caring professions’ are adept at using such terms…but whether they have any concrete substance behind them is moot. Seems to be vapourware.

  • Ermintrude

    It shows an incredible lack of insight on behalf of the West Midlands police. The Street Triage project was nice puff but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s not much point having a diversion scheme if there’s nowhere to divert people to.. and as for Inspector Brown – I’ve always respected him. Respect him even more now and he was and is right.

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