Custody deaths cause enormous welfare problems for officers too

20 September 2016

Police custody

The care of police officers and staff following a death in custody is something that must be considered in the ongoing Independent Review

Nick Ephgrave, the National Police Chief's Council (NPCC) Custody Lead, has been involved with the review process, which is currently being carried out by Dame Elish Angiolini.

Speaking at PFEW’s National Custody Seminar, the Surrey chief constable insisted it is important that the issue is looked at from all areas.

“It was due to report in the summer,” he said. “And as the information came in and she started to think about some of the wider issues of deaths in custody and what happens afterwards, the complexity and the different interest groups has become apparent and it has become a more complicated thing to document.

“So she’s spending a lot of time trying to get this review right from all perspectives.

“One of the things I’m trying to do from a police service perspective is to highlight the effects that protracted investigations following the death of a person in police custody have on staff and police officers that have been involved.

“In my force there have been people who have resigned because they are not prepared to put up with it. I have had people who have had mental health issues because of investigations into what they have or haven’t done in the course of a custody incident, irrespective of what they have or haven’t done – the whole process has created difficulties.

“Equally, from an operational point of view, I’ve got quite a lot of staff who I can’t deploy because they are the subject of investigations, and I think that’s an issue Dame Elish was unsighted on and I’m very keen to make sure that is taken notice of.

“It’s a really difficult nut to crack and I’ve got great hopes that at the end of it there will be some simple recommendations that cover all of those expectations  from differing points of view.”

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report into deaths in and following custody showed a total of 14 deaths in custody in 2015/16, but CC Ephgrave admits there are wider issues surrounding the issue.

“The numbers of deaths in custody has significantly reduced over the last decade, but it seems to have levelled out since 2012,” he added. “Each one is regrettable, but each one is complicated and complex, they always are.

“Of the 14 deaths last year, seven of them had mental health issues or concerns, and 12 had serious issues with drug and alcohol dependency.  This highlights the very real difficulties you have as practitioners of individuals that are at high risk of illness and death and it brings in to focus the importance of getting that risk assessment right.

“A thing that is growing is the number of suicides in the 48 hours post-custody. That was 60 last year. They are almost overwhelmingly male, almost overwhelmingly white and interestingly almost overwhelmingly middle-aged. There’s all sorts of postulations about why this may be, it could be the nature of the offence with which they have been arrested, different demographic, a whole range of theories.

“It just brings in to focus the issue of detention for their own wellbeing and we should be very concerned about the increase in suicides after police custody because some of them will be preventable.”