Police are working with Auckland DHB to treat mentally distressed people as patients, not prisoners.
For the past month, police and the Auckland District Health Board have been trialling a new process, through which an average of two people a day are taken to Auckland Hospital's emergency room instead of being put in a police cell.
It follows a review of the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA), released in March, which criticised the way police handled the detention of 31 people who were in mental distress.
Police have in many instances become the first port of call in such situations and last year they received 12,000 calls about attempted suicide or a suicide risk. It is estimated that police deal with an average of 100 mental health-related calls each day.
But the new initiative has "teething problems" as mental health resources are stretched which often means long waits for people in extreme distress.
Senior Sergeant Ross Endicott-Davies manages the Auckland central police district project. He told Nine to Noon police are often the first response for people in mental distress, who may also be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Such people were often suicidal and officers were sometimes trying to save their lives, without necessarily having the medical skills to assess how to do that, he said.
"There is a duty of care (to) provide an appropriate response to people who are in mental distress.
"So the place of assessment has been paramount, and that's where the IPCA has come into being.
"Because in many cases that place of assessment has previously been in the police space, and in some cases it's obviously not a good space for people in mental distress to be in."
Mr Endicott-Davies said calls for help often came after hours when normal mental health services were not operating, and police had been looking for a 24-hour facility that could provide appropriate support.
He said Auckland Central police station has a medical suite, which means people in mental distress are not always put into a cell, but they still need appropriate assessment and support.
"Sometimes some of these people are in mental distress to the degree that they do need a secure environment. But in the majority of places, people who are relatively compliant but still unwell need to be in an environment that's not going to exacerbate their condition."
He said police get some basic training "but obviously they're not mental health professionals". Their priority was to take patients to a place of safety and support them until mental health services were able to step in.
Waiting times often long
Mr Endicott-Davies said such cases are demanding of police resources and lack of resourcing in emergency mental health services means there are often delays there as well, particularly after hours.
"If mental health services are busy dealing with other matters there are time delays."
Mr Endicott-Davies said police still have to make the initial risk assessment when deciding whether to take people to the emergency department (ED).
But people who are a security risk in terms of their volatility will still be kept at the police station until mental health services can respond.
"People who are in mental distress, but they are not volatile or overly aggressive, can be taken to a part of ED where our liaison psychiatry can attend to them as soon as possible."
He concedes there are still long waits both at the hospital and at the police station because of a lack of staff.
"There are frustrations there obviously for police, but also there are frustrations for the psych liaison and on ED staff as well."
Mr Endicott-Davies rejected a suggestion that the area is chronically under resourced, but he said there are "high calls for service" and only so many resources to go around.