Joanna Bale for The Times
VIP ‘stalker’ squad set up by government
The government has secretly set up a VIP “stalker” squad to identify and detain terrorists and other individuals who pose a threat to prominent people.
The unit, staffed by police and psychiatrists, will have the power to detain suspects indefinitely using mental health laws.
The Fixated Threat Assessment Centre (FTAC) was quietly established last October and is set to reignite controversy over the detention of suspects without trial.
Until now it has been up to mental health professionals to determine if someone should be forcibly detained, but the new unit uses the police to identify suspects, increasing fears that distinctions are being blurred between criminal investigations and doctors’ clinical decisions.
The Metropolitan Police confirmed that the unit had been established only after its existence was revealed in a Sunday newspaper.
In a statement, it said: “The Fixated Threat Assessment Centre is a joint initiative between the Metropolitan Police, Home Office and Department of Health. Its role is to assess, manage and reduce potential risks and threats from fixated individuals, against people in public life, particularly protected VIPs.
“Fixated individuals are those who are abnormally preoccupied with certain ideas or people. Research has shown that a small minority exhibit violent behaviour.”
It is being hailed as the first joint mental health-police unit in the UK and a “prototype for future joint services” in other areas.
The Mental Health Act requires two doctors or psychiatrists to approve a forcible detention, or “sectioning”, for treatment. It allows a patient to be held for up to six months before a further psychological assessment. Patients are then reviewed every year to determine if they can be released.
The government is trying to amend the act, with a controversial bill introduced in November, to bring in a wider definition of mental disorder in order to give doctors more power to detain people.
Liberty said the secret unit represented a new threat to civil liberties. Its policy director, Gareth Crossman, said: “There is a grave danger of this being used to deal with people where there is insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution.
“This blurs the line between medical decisions and police actions. If you are going to allow doctors to take people’s liberty away, they have to be independent. That credibility is undermined when the doctors are part of the same team as the police.
“[…] you have a unit that allows police investigation to lead directly to people being sectioned without any kind of criminal proceedings. ”
FTAC was set up following an NHS research programme based at Chase Farm Hospital in Enfield, north London. Researchers examined thousands of cases of prominent people being stalked. It liaised with the FBI, the US Secret Service, the Capitol Hill Police, which protects Congressmen and Senators, and the Swedish and Norwegian secret services.
The research led to FTAC being set up with a £500,000-a-year budget from the Home Office and Department of Health.