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Changes to law on police powers to better protect public, not manage mental health: Josephine Teo

Changes to law on police powers to better protect public, not manage mental health: Josephine Teo

Source: Straits Times
Article Date: 03 Apr 2024

Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said it was a mischaracterisation that the changes to the law were for mental health management.

Two changes were made to the law on April 2 that will allow the police to apprehend someone who poses a danger to himself or to those around him.

It will also allow officers to search him for weapons before handing him over to medical staff.

But in Parliament on April 2, several MPs said they were worried about how the police would handle such cases when they involved people with mental health conditions.

The MPs were concerned about how such people would be treated when apprehended, and how the police assessed when they needed to apprehend someone.

The Law Enforcement and Other Matters Bill was passed on April 2, introducing offences targeting those who misuse local SIM cards to facilitate scams.

It also makes amendments to enhance the police’s ability to apprehend people posing a safety risk to themselves and others.

Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo had earlier said the police do not get involved in cases of persons with mental health conditions unless they pose a danger to themselves or someone else.

Addressing the MPs’ concerns, she said the changes to the law were not meant to be used for the purpose of mental health management.

Instead, the changes clarified the police’s powers of apprehension under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) Act (MHCTA), and the powers of search and seizure under the Police Force Act (PFA).

Mrs Teo said it was a mischaracterisation that the changes were for mental health management.

The first change is to the MHCTA, allowing the police to apprehend a person who may pose a danger to themselves or others and to take them for medical treatment.

Mrs Teo explained that apprehension is different from an arrest. After apprehending someone, the police will take him to a medical practitioner as opposed to a lock-up.

The second change is to the PFA, to make it clear that the police can use their powers of search and seizure to check someone for weapons after apprehending him.

She cited a case involving a 73-year-old man who had an ice pick and knife at a police station.

He said foreign law enforcement agencies were disturbing his sleep, and he would use the weapons to tell them to leave him alone. The police apprehended him under the MHCTA and took him to the Institute of Mental Health for medical treatment.

But a recent High Court judgment determined that for apprehensions under the MHCTA, the danger presented had to be imminent – a matter of hours rather than days. This meant that in such situations, the police could only either not take any action, or would have to arrest that person and put him through the criminal process.

Mrs Teo said the first option is not responsible as the police would have to risk people getting hurt or even killed.

She said the second option is also not ideal as an arrest is not what the person who may have mental health conditions needs.

The same High Court judgment also said because apprehensions are different from arrests, the police cannot search apprehended persons for weapons.

Mrs Teo said this was a problem as the police would be expected to ensure the man was not armed before handing him over to medical staff.

Eleven MPs had raised questions regarding the Bill, of whom 10 had spoken about the changes involving the police’s powers. All were worried about the social stigma faced by mental health patients and how these changes might affect them.

Mr Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC), Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) and Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) had asked how the police assess whether the threat of physical harm is attributable to a mental disorder.

Nominated MPs Razwana Begum Abdul Rahim, Syed Harun Alhabsyi and Keith Chua, and Mr Ng, asked whether police officers should be accompanied by mental health professionals or community first responders when responding to cases involving persons with mental health conditions.

Ms He also asked whether the amendments are in compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Mrs Teo said the police do not intend to put more burden on those with mental health conditions or their families.

She said: “Police will not get involved unless called to prevent harm from happening. And the idea that (section) of the MHCTA is being used for mental health management is entirely mistaken, as I’ve explained earlier and reiterate again.

“I would also urge members to help clarify this mischaracterisation and put the minds of mental health patients themselves and their families at ease...”

She added the role of the police is to deal with the threat of harm and protect public safety, not to assess or diagnose mental health conditions or disorders.

As for police officers being accompanied by mental health professionals or community first responders, Mrs Teo said before responding to the scene, the police might not know if a mental health condition is involved.

And even if they suspect one is involved, it would not be practical to have so many such professionals on stand-by all the time.

Addressing Ms He’s question, Mrs Teo said the MHCTA continues to be in compliance with the UN Convention.

She said: “We recognise that persons with mental health conditions are part of our society, and we should do our best to help them.

“In those circumstances that warrant police intervention, police are well aware and minded to calibrate their responses, and let medical professionals take over as soon as practicable.”

Source: Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

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