Custody report poses more questions than answers

30 October 2017


A long-awaited report into death in custody has  finally been published, leading to a cautious welcome from the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) but also a number of concerns.

Of the 110 recommendations, 39 relate to policing with the remainder aimed at the justice and regulatory systems and the NHS. But along with publication, there is no blueprint for funding or resources, and “we’re left wondering how exactly this is going to be delivered. Where are the tools to do the job?” said PFEW Custody Lead Andy Ward.

Criticising the publication delay, more than two years after the review was commissioned by former Home Secretary Theresa May, he said: “We know the numbers of deaths in or following police custody are broadly declining, from 36 in 2004/05, to 14 for each of the past two years but that is no reason to be complacent; just one death is too many and this review is long overdue. It makes many valid recommendations but stops short of detailing how they are to be achieved against a background of continued austerity and police officer numbers dropping by more than 21,000 since 2010.”

Mr Ward said he welcomed the emphasis on training, with 34 of the 39 policing recommendations addressing the need for better provision but wondered how it could be delivered on the scale needed. He said: “The Federation has been highlighting concerns about the lack of good quality, consistent training in the custody arena for years but it has fallen on deaf ears and the service appears to have made little headway. There are custody personnel who have had no refresher training for more than five years, custody suites are being shut because of a lack of resources and there is a rising toll on the mental health and sickness levels of those officers who work in that environment.

“While we are glad that custody training needs appear to have been recognised, we are not confident that the necessary additional resources will be made available to pay for it or to ensure that we have the appropriate levels of custody personnel to ensure detainees’ safety?”

He also said that improved training had to start with the frontline - where detainees were first likely to come into contact with the police and not just be limited to those working in custody.

Pointing to a crisis in custody, Mr Ward highlighted the recent PFEW Pay and Morale survey which showed that nearly one in five (18.9%) of custody officers want to be redeployed away from detention duties as soon as possible. Nearly three-quarters (73.1%) of officers not currently in a custody role say they would never want to do that job. The survey results back up the long-held view that custody is still perceived as a ‘punishment posting’ by many.

The Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody, chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini, makes recommendations across a wide range of other issues, including restraint techniques, healthcare provision, detainees with mental health issues, IPCC investigations and post-incident police procedures.

The report highlights the number of custody deaths involving vulnerabilities such as mental health, drunkenness and drug use. Of the 14 people who sadly died in or following police custody in 2016/17, eight were identified as having mental health concerns and 11 were known to have a link to alcohol and/ or drugs.

Mr Ward said: “The Federation has long held the view that police cells are not the right place for individuals suffering a mental health crisis, yet officers are increasingly required to deal with the most vulnerable members of our society because of reducing resources across the public sector.”

Custody sergeants face huge difficulties in trying to source appropriate places of safety or locate Appropriate Adults for those with mental health issues or other vulnerabilities.

“It is essential that there is a greater emphasis and availability of input from health professionals where detainees are identified as being vulnerable. This will require a cultural step change at every level and a commitment at a leadership level and by Government to ensure this happens in practice. Real money needs to be invested in secure non-police facilities so that vulnerable people can be accommodated at more appropriate places of care. Secure accommodation should be person-centred and not reliant on whoever has a spare bed.”

The Federation will work with all parties to now try to ensure that the recommendations can be implemented in a way that will ensure the safety of detainees, police officers and communities. But other stakeholders will need to play their part; something the report underpins with nearly two thirds of the recommendations aimed at other non-policing agencies, like the NHS, local authorities, the IPCC and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Mr Ward added: “While there are elements of the report that could be implemented quickly, many others are going to take an awful lot longer to achieve and others still might not be achievable at all. Some of the recommendations, such as the nationwide roll out of Body Worn Video, something the Federation has been calling for through its Protect The Protectors campaign, and CCTV in police vans, carry significant cost implications so they will depend on the appetite of Government to effect change, both legislatively and financially.”