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?
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.