Police custody deaths down

26 July 2016

Karen Stephens

Custody officers must be able to source appropriate health and social care for mentally ill detainees or people with other vulnerabilities, warns the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW).

“We have been saying repeatedly that police cells are not the right place for those with mental health issues and other problems but for too long the police service has been used as a sticking plaster to solve society’s issues,” said Karen Stephens, PFEW’s custody spokesperson.

“Budget cuts across the NHS and local authorities mean that too often the police service has to step in when troubled individuals need a place of safety. It’s not right, but sometimes there is no other option, leading to a stressful situation for the individual concerned when they are often already experiencing a mental health crisis.”

Mrs Stephens, who sits on PFEW’s Custody Forum, was speaking as the IPCC delivered its annual report into deaths during or following police contact. In 2015/16 there were 14 deaths in or following police custody, down from 17 the previous year. Of these, half had known mental health concerns and 86% had links to drugs and/ or alcohol.

She said: “Whilst one death is one too many, we are pleased that the figures reflect the increased help and support detainees are receiving. The number of apparent suicides following police custody is also down from 70 to 60, the lowest figure since 2012/13, but much more needs to be done.

“What cannot be ignored is that more than half of the apparent suicides had known mental health concerns and nearly half had drugs and/ or alcohol concerns. Yet when the custody sergeant invariably tries to contact health or social care professionals to access a more suitable provision for the detainee, they are either being told there are no appropriate facilities at that time or they cannot get through to the right person.”

Mrs Stephens also welcomed the draft Policing and Crime Bill which proposes to ban police custody for children and make it exceptional for adults with mental health issues. But she called for more clarity on what ‘exceptional circumstances’ were ‘otherwise we will end up in the same situation as before’ and said the Bill – expected to become law in 2017 - must be accompanied by greater financial resources to provide alternative detention or place of safety facilities for those groups.

Finally she warned that more funding must be made available for training – at least one force had had no refresher custody training for five years – and the number of applications to be a custody sergeant were also dropping, “perhaps because it is possibly seen as a punishment posting, even though it needs the greatest skill and training. When there are organisational failures, all too often custody personnel are blamed whereas what is needed is a holistic approach, bringing together all the relevant agencies and proper resources to ensure that the detainee is kept safe.”