With the number of deaths in or following police custody currently being the highest for five years in England and Wales, it is only right that serious questions are now asked.
As a specialist in handling claims against the police for wrongful arrest and police misconduct at Hudgell Solicitors, I see first-hand the impact being placed into custody as on every individual – whether their arrest and detention can be justified or not.
As Home Secretary Theresa May stressed today when announcing the review, police custody is a place where a number of dynamics meet.
“It is the place where dangerous and difficult criminals are rightly locked-up, where officers and staff regularly face violent, threatening and abusive behaviour, and where the police use some of their most sensitive and coercive powers,” she said.
Importantly, she also recognised that it is also a place where all too often vulnerable people, and often those with mental health problems, are taken because there is simply no other place for them to go.
It is certainly a concern to hear today that of 17 deaths in or after custody in 2014/15, eight people, and half of those apparently committing suicide afterwards, had mental health concerns.
Clearly, something has to change and lessons need to be learned.
The plan to review how deaths in custody occur – and how they are investigated – comes after the police complaints watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), was criticised for inadequately getting to the bottom of a number of fatalities.
It is expected to cover the lead-up to deaths, the immediate aftermath and how families are helped or supported during official investigations.
It will also assess whether police officers properly understand mental health issues, the availability of appropriate healthcare, the use of restraint techniques, and suicides in the first 48 hours of detention.
It comes as Mrs May says she has experienced the frustration of police officers and staff first hand, whose mission it is to help people, but whose training and procedures can end up causing bureaucracy and delay.
IPCC chair Dame Anne Owers claims the custody system currently suffers from “inadequate risk assessments, token checks on a person in custody, insufficient handovers between custody staff, a failure to recognise or properly deal with people with mental health concerns or substance abuse issues, and poor liaison between police and other agencies”.
With that in mind, it is no surprise to see the number of deaths rising in custody. There is much work to do.
Police officers have a duty to not only protect law abiding members of the public, but also to care for the health of those who are detained when suspected of doing wrong.
At Hudgell Solicitors, we have unfortunately dealt with many cases where it appears police officers have either forgotten, or chosen to ignore the fact they are there to protect all.
This independent review will also importantly cover serious non-fatal incidents in custody, something which is vitally important if the culture of handling those in custody across the UK is to change.
Mrs May concluded that every single incident of a death in custody represented a failure, and had the potential to undermine dramatically the relationship between the public and the police.
That is something we entirely agree with.
It is happening too often, and it is only right that this situation of increasing deaths in police custody now comes under the closest possible scrutiny.