Diagnosing vulnerability and “dangerousness”: police use of Section 136 in England and Wales

David Menkes, Gillian Bendelow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Police in England and Wales are empowered, under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 (s136), to detain individuals who are thought to be a danger to themselves or to others. Use of this authority is widespread, but varies substantially across districts and attracts controversy, both because of inconsistent application, and by the fact that it requires the police to make judgements about mental health. To study attitudes to and criteria for using s136 from the unique perspective of the police, we conducted focus groups with 30 officers in both urban and rural areas of three different regions across England and Wales. Group interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analysed using open and axial coding. The results indicate that use of this authority has major implications for police work and officers in all regions. Liaison with mental health services, whilst essential, is often perceived as ineffective due to resource constraints and the lack of availability of appropriate ‘places of safety’, especially in rural areas. The decision to invoke s136 is further complicated in individual cases by factors such as drug and alcohol use and ‘contested conditions’ such as personality disorders. Police decisions thus reflect an implicit values-based classification of and response to emotionally-disturbed behaviour, in light of available institutional and social supports. Tasked primarily with protecting the public and keeping the peace, police acknowledge their ‘diagnosis’ of risk often contrasts with that of mental health professionals.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)70-82
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Public Mental Health
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jun 2014

Bibliographical note

This article is © Emerald Group Publishing and permission has been granted for this version to appear here: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/JPMH-09-2012-0001. Emerald does not grant permission for this article to be further copied/distributed or hosted elsewhere without the express permission from Emerald Group Publishing Limited.


  • mental health
  • social policy
  • mental health policy
  • suicide prevention
  • policing
  • Mental Health Act


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