A 'tsunami' of legislation for custody sergeants

20 September 2016

police custody

The new Policing and Crime Bill, which becomes law next year, will see many changes made in the custody arena and its full impact has already been likened to a ‘tsunami on custody sergeants’.

Topics under discussion at the seminar include the treatment of mentally ill detainees; a sea-change in pre-charge bail rules; use of force; and, as the independent review ordered by Theresa May gets set to report later this year, deaths and serious incidents in custody.

Andy Ward, Police Federation of England and Wales Deputy General Secretary and Custody Lead, said: “The new Bill is the biggest shift in custody in 32 years, since the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) in 1984. Not only will release without bail become the default position pre-charge, but there are also real challenges to slash the number of children detained under the Mental Health Act to zero."

Mr Ward was speaking as the latest National Police Chief's Council (NPCC) figures showed that the numbers of mentally ill people detained in police custody have dramatically fallen by more than half, from 4,537 the previous year to 2,100 in 2015/16. For under 18s, the trend was more marked, falling from 161 occasions to 43.

He said: “This shows the great strides that have been made in this area and the concerted efforts of the police service alongside other stakeholders to drive down the numbers. There is now widespread agreement and recognition that police detention is not the most appropriate – or kindest - solution when dealing with people suffering from a mental health crisis.

“But the real challenge for the future will be complying with the new Bill’s complete ban on children being held in cells under section 136 of the Mental Health Act. The police service will need to be able to access alternative places of safety for them 24/7, whether that be provided by health or local authority services. In practice, this is not always possible now.”

There are also concerns about the Bill’s proposal to cap pre-charge bail at 28 days – with extensions available for ‘exceptional’ circumstances. But that time limit is ‘unrealistic’ for complex crimes, said Mr Ward.

“Many investigations are complex and require detailed work - for example cyber crime where computers are seized and the equipment has to be interrogated to gain evidence - or detailed forensic tests. With the cuts that have been made across all areas of policing and a reliance on experts, such a short bail period could mean that criminals will not be brought to justice,” he said.

Custody deaths are falling year on year, according to  the latest Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) figures which show that there were 14 deaths in or following police custody in 2015/16, down from 17 the previous year. Of these, half had known mental health concerns and 86%  had links to drugs and/or alcohol.

But delegates will also hear that staff shortages, high levels of stress and a lack of training are an increasing problem in the custody world. One regional Police Federation recently reported it had had no custody refresher training for five years – and the number of applications to be a custody sergeant are also dropping.

Mr Ward added: “What is particularly needed is training for police personnel, both in custody and response functions, in recognising and assisting those suffering from mental ill-health. Custody remains a core element of frontline policing, both for those working in and around it, and those affected by it. The role of Custody Officer is increasingly complex and demanding, carrying with it enormous levels of responsibility, accountability and scrutiny. They hold a truly unique and publicly accountable status that is essential in ensuring those detained in police custody are treated and cared for to the highest standards. ”

These and other topics will be debated at this year’s conference in Warwick, from 20-21 September, where guest speakers include Juliet Lyon, the new chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody; IPCC Chair Dame Anne Owers who will be talking about ‘Learning from IPCC investigations and the Use of Force report’; Chief Constable Nick Ephgrave, National Policing Lead for Custody; and Commander Christine Jones, National Policing Lead for Mental Health.

They will also be joined by Professor Michael Zander, LSE legal and bail expert; Susan Freeburn, a criminal defence lawyer talking about post incident procedures; lawyer Richard Atkinson, a member of the PACE Review Board; and Mark Hill, Home Office advisor outlining ways to make cells safer for detainees.