Posted by Ali Cloak, Senior Associate
Shocking statistics show how the state continues to fail to protect lives
Official figures released on 25 July have shown that deaths in police custody have risen by nearly 65% to their highest figure in 10 years, with 23 people dying in the last year alone. These deaths occurred either in police cells or whilst being taken to hospital following detention in a police cell or arrest.
The issues highlighted by the statistics mirror the concerns reported in the ‘Angiolini Report’, a government report by Dame Elish Angiolini investigating deaths and serious incidents in police custody which was published in October 2017. In this blog, I will take a closer look at the recommendations of the Angiolini Report in the context of these alarming recent statistics.
There were four key areas that the report looked at; restraint, race, substance misuse and mental health.
Notably, 74% of those who died had been restrained, or force had been used against them by the police during their interactions.
Whilst this did not necessarily cause their death, the Angiolini Report had already raised awareness of this key issue. The report highlighted that it was integral that police services recognise the dangers posed by restraining someone, and that this may be life-threatening for anyone in a mental health crisis or suffering from substance-induced psychosis.
Unfortunately, the report also noted that there is no national training on restraint techniques. The Government responded saying that they would introduce the collection of wide-ranging statistics on the use of force to better analyse and tackle the issue.
A major concern seen in the statistics is that nearly 50% of those who had been restrained prior to their deaths in or following police custody were black, which is hugely disproportionate.
The Angiolini Report noted that previous figures also show evidence of disproportionate deaths of black or minority ethnic people dying after the use of force or restraint techniques by the police. There is already an acknowledgement that black and minority ethnic individuals are overly represented in the criminal justice system.
Restraint and the use of force is an area that needs a systemic overhaul. This must be led by national policing bodies to put policies into practice, and for local forces to implement them to create a culture change in the way that the police deal with situations of conflict, particularly with those suffering a mental health crisis. Education and re-training on racial stereotyping and perceptions of risk and conflict from non-white community groups must also be addressed.
The official figures show that nearly 80% of those dying in police custody, or soon after, have alcohol or substance misuse problems.
The Angiolini Report also cited that since 2004 82% of those who died in or after police custody had a link to alcohol or drugs. The report raises the question of how health services can interact with policing to provide the best response, and highlights the compounding issue of where those detained under the mental health act are also intoxicated, as this particularly vulnerable group can often be refused by mental healthcare facilities due to their intoxication, putting further pressure on the police to detain them in custody as a place of safety.
Solutions suggested include setting up specialist centres for those intoxicated, separate to police custody or hospitals, or having specific sections within A&E departments where those heavily intoxicated can be treated without affecting the safety of others.
The recent statistics show that more than half of the 23 people who died last year in police custody or shortly after had mental health problems.
The figures reported in the Angiolini Report also show that mental health consistently plays a part in deaths in police custody with the figures for this year stated above being similar to those in 2015-6. The report suggests that under the Mental Health Act, those who are detained should not be taken to police stations as designated ‘places of safety’ and that those in a mental health crisis should be dealt with through medical pathways instead of police detention.
It seems clear that vulnerable people’s needs are not been being met by health and community care providers, most likely due to their increasingly limited resources following a decade of austerity policies. The criminal justice and police system is not a safe place to address these issues that need specialist interventions.
The government response to the Angiolini Report accepted the findings and stated that lessons were being learnt. Changes now need to be put in place urgently to stop the rising number of deaths in custody, which cause continued devastation for families and loved ones of the deceased.
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