Mental health issues dominate police custody

20 September 2016

Police custody and mental health
Mental health issues continue to dominate the police custody world as officers strive to make detention a better – and kinder – experience for individuals suffering from a crisis.

Officers revealed they were haunted by custody deaths as the national Custody Seminar run by the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) got under way. The distinct lack of training for custody officers and staff in dealing with people suffering from mental health problems was also raised.

Juliet Lyon, the new chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP), told delegates: “Vulnerable people are not best served in cells.”

She said that her new job was to reduce the number and rate of deaths in custody and review the use of restraint, although she conceded that “the number of deaths in police custody were comparatively small [when looked against the numbers in the prison system]”.

Last year there were 14 custody deaths in or following custody – a reduction of three from the previous year, according to the latest 2015/16 IPCC figures.

But she warned that it was “relatively easy if you are minded to kill yourself” and detainees suffering from depression and other mental health issues were more vulnerable than others.

Her role will also be to embed learning and best practice in the custody arena in order to cut death rates and better support the police service. She revealed that the independent review ordered by the then Home Secretary Theresa May into deaths and serious incidents in custody is set to report to the Home Office by October. But earlier in the seminar, national custody lead Chief Constable Nick Ephgrave said the review had been ‘more complicated’ than previously thought and was ‘a tough nut to crack.’

The seminar also heard from PFEW’s Custody Forum Chair Darren Harris who said custody deaths have a long-lasting effect on officers. “On 1st September 2006, I arrested a person who later died in custody. There is probably not a week that doesn’t go by that I don’t think about that.”

Another delegate, from Dorset, also revealed: “Nine out of ten detainees who come before me suffer from depression. There is a lack of training in dealing with people suffering from mental health issues. Detainees are being sectioned within the custody block yet they still remain in custody for another 24 hours or sometimes 36 hours,” he said. “There should be full training packages available to enable us to deal with this.”

And Inspector Michael Brown, the College of Policing’s mental health lead, admits that it is an issue he deals with frequently – and is a difficult one from a training point of view because of the different ways forces deploy officers.

“In some forces we have a triage system and in other forces a certain officer can be tasked with the job on a shift, but in other areas there can be seven or eight officers in an area who work full-time in triage – that is their job. All of those forces will therefore have very different training requirements,” he said.

“The scenario that is the single-most raised issue that I get emailed to me is surrounding mental health care.

“There is a frequent misunderstanding about the legal point where someone is sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Somebody is sectioned at the point when an approved mental health professional makes a written application to a specific hospital, supported by two doctor’s recommendations in the main, and at that point and not before.

“So if there is a minor offence and someone is clearly unwell, but they cannot find a bed, until they find a bed that person is still in police custody, governed by the Police & Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) and everything PACE says about making decisions about releasing them from custody. They cannot be held under the act until they have been sectioned, so that is a difficult situation to play.

“Senior officers can think that when the assessment has happened, they have been sectioned, but that is not the case.”

National Police Chief's Council (NPCC) lead for Custody Nick Ephgrave also raised concerns around mentally ill people who come through the police system – and a police officer’s duty of care to them as the Independent Review into deaths and injuries in custody continues.

“You can be dealing with a detainee who is ready for release, and they say to the custody sergeant ‘as soon as I walk out of here, I’m going to jump under a train’ or hang themselves, or create some horrible outcome,” he explained.

“The custody officer is then of course faced with a very difficult problem to solve. If they are telling you and you’ve got no reason to disbelief that they may kill themselves or self-harm, what do you do? Do you let them go? How long do you follow them for?

“Some officers have tried to detain people for their own good because they can’t rely on the Mental Health Act, common sense tells you it’s the right thing to do, but the law says you are breaking it. I think that’s a loophole that needs to be sorted out and addressed.”

The National Custody Seminar also heard from Mark Hill from the Home Office Police Estates Group on better design for custody suites to reduce risk and Professor Michael Zander on the latest changes to PACE.

It concludes tomorrow with presentations from the Law Society’s Richard Atkinson on protecting detainee rights, Slater & Gordon’s Susan Freeman with an update on key legal issues and investigations, and a talk on Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigations and the use of force report by Dame Anne Owers, the chair of the IPCC.