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Rising custody deaths highlights gaps in care

26 July 2018

THE RISING number of police custody deaths has highlighted the gaps in NHS, social and mental health care, says the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW).

A new report shows that in 2017/18 there were 23 deaths in or following police custody, up from 14 for the previous two years.

Of those 23, more than half (12 people) who died had mental health concerns, up from eight last year. And 18 people had links to drugs and/ or alcohol (up from 11 the previous year).

Deputy general secretary and custody lead for PFEW Andy Ward said, “Police officers must be able to source appropriate health and social care for detainees experiencing mental health crises or people with other vulnerabilities.

“The Federation has been warning for years that police cells are not the right place for those with mental health issues and other problems, and while this has been acknowledged, not enough has been done, nor is it quick enough.

“Now we are in a position where the number of deaths has tragically risen, but it is clear there is insufficient resourcing and an inability to tackle the problem holistically. The Government needs to look at the broader picture, community and support services as well as those who deal with people in crisis.

“After a downward trend in in custody deaths in recent years, surely this must be a massive wake-up call for the Government?”

Mr Ward was speaking as the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) published its annual deaths in or following police contact 2017/18 report.

The report showed that the 23 who died was the highest number for a decade, but lower than the 36 recorded in 2004 when the IOPC’s predecessor the Independent Police Complaints Commission began reporting these deaths.

Of those who died, a minority of deaths occurred in police cells: eight were identified as being unwell in a police cell; nine were taken ill at the scene of arrest and all were taken to hospital; four were taken ill in a police vehicle on the way to a police station; and two died following their release from police custody.

It was also revealed that:

  • there were 57 apparent suicides following police custody, the same as the previous year.
  • of those, almost three-quarters (41) has known mental health concerns
  • and half (29) were reported to be intoxicated with drugs and/ or alcohol

Mr Ward said the problem was much bigger than the police service and custody, and said many deaths were preventable.

He said, “Community health budgets including mental health services are in crisis, and the same financial pressures are being felt by local authorities and social services.

“There needs to be a real step change in how these very complex societal problems are tackled, one where vulnerable people are helped before they end up being arrested or in a police cell.

“Many vulnerable people have not only complex health needs, but also psychological issues and substance addictions. So there also needs to be more investment in addiction services. Sadly community health services are often seen as the poor relation of the NHS, but underfunding in these areas can have tragic consequences, and the police service ends up shouldering the burden.”

Mr Ward said the Federation had raised exactly the same concerns when the long-awaited Independent Review into Deaths and Serious Injuries in Custody, chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini, and commissioned by then Home Secretary Theresa May was published two years late last autumn.

He said, “Of the 110 recommendations, 39 related to policing with the remainder aimed at the justice and regulatory systems and the NHS. But along with publication, there was no blueprint for funding or resources, and now we have this latest report before us.

“Just one death is too many and while the review contained several valid points, it stopped short of detailing exactly how we are supposed to achieve the work against a background of continuous austerity and falling police officer numbers.

“Police training also needs to be addressed properly, and should start with the frontline - where detainees are first likely to come into contact with the police and not just be limited to those working in custody.”

He added: “Police cells should truly be a last resort for those with mental health issues. We will work with all parties to try and ensure the safety of detainees, police officers and communities. But other stakeholders like, Government, the NHS and local authorities must also play their part. And Government must take responsibility, both legislatively and financially, so that real money is put into secure non-police facilities, drug and alcohol services, community health and social care programmes so that the most vulnerable people in society can be helped and protected.”

The IOPC report also showed that in the same 12 month period:

  • there were four fatal shootings, a reduction from six last year. Three relate to the Borough Market terrorist attack.
  • And 29 road traffic fatalities, down three from last year; 17 related to police pursuits (reduced from last year’s 28); and eight from emergency response incidents

The custody issues raised by the IOPC report will form part of the programme of PFEW’s National Custody Seminar on 11 and 12 September.