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September 7th 2017

Andrew Petherbridge

Report into police custody deaths highlights conferring over statements, treatment of mentally ill and use of excessive restraint as concerns

Andrew Petherbridge

Andrew Petherbridge

Legal Executive and Head of Civil Liberties

Report into police custody deaths highlights conferring over statements, treatment of mentally ill and use of excessive restraint as concerns

It seems highly significant that an official review into police custody deaths is set to lead to more than 100 recommendations being made in a bid to make far-reaching reforms to the UK police and justice system.

It seems highly significant that an official review into police custody deaths is set to lead to more than 100 recommendations being made in a bid to make far-reaching reforms to the UK police and justice system.

The findings of the report, which are still to be officially published but have been reported by the Guardian newspaper in advance, do not reflect well on the actions of police forces across the UK when taking people into custody.

According to the newspaper article, a ‘racial disproportionality in police restraint deaths’ has been highlighted, with calls made for forces to be held to account on “an individual and corporate levels” if restraint of a suspect is deemed excessive, unnecessary or disproportionate.

The recommendations of Dame Elish Angiolini QC, a former chief lawyer to the Scottish government, also appear to call into question the integrity of some police forces following deaths in custody.

It is said to highlight ‘conferring’ between officers after incidents and before they make their individual statements is a matter of concern.

The report is also said to highlight “victim blaming” – in which police forces leak details to the media after a death in a bid to “deflect blame” – as another area of worry.

Such findings certainly do little to boost public confidence in our police forces and suggest Theresa May was right in her actions when ordering this this report when still Home Secretary.

When finally published, the finding and conclusions of this report could further damage that level of trust between families and communities and our police forces.

Sadly, many people are unjustly treated badly, and then find obstructions in their way when looking to challenge the actions of those employed to uphold the law.

Calls for major change in police custody

One of the most significant aspects of the report, as reported by the Guardian, is a call for a ban on those detained under mental health powers being held in police cells, and being transported in police vehicles, except in exceptional cases.

The report is expected to say that holding those believed to be suffering from mental health issues in police cells should be phased out completely, and this is certainly something I believe is a much needed change.

Too often, in the cases I have seen in my work as a civil liberties specialist at Hudgell Solicitors and read about, the mental capacity of an individual when being taken into custody has not been considered early enough in the matter.

The report is set to urge mental health training of the same standard across all 44 forces in England and Wales for officers, new recruits, plus refresher training.

I believe this would make officers better placed to spot when people have mental health challenges, and have a hugely positive impact on policing and reducing health risks.

Cameras in police vans and on all officers would eliminate conflicting accounts

It is also very interesting to read that Dame Angiolini is to call for video cameras in every police van used to transport a prisoner, and on every frontline officer.

This again would be a very valuable change, as I have worked on cases where the events around an arrest – and during transportation of a suspect to a station – have been strongly disputed and inconsistent.

Without any video footage it can be very difficult to draw an accurate conclusion as to what actually happened. There can, however, rarely be dispute over clear video evidence.

I also welcome moves to ensure families of those who die in police custody will receive “free, non means-tested” legal advice from the start of the process, through to an inquest.

At present, police and state organisations are publicly funded to defend themselves against accusations of wrongdoing and misconduct, while families are often left struggling to get legal aid to cover the cost of holding forces to account.

Finally, the report is to call on the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to robustly challenge discrimination – even to where it can simply have been ‘inferred’ – and to establish a deaths and serious injuries unit.

It says the IPCC must do better in its work to gain public confidence, calling on it to formally request in writing the suspension of officers under investigation for criminal matters or for gross misconduct, or placing them on restricted duties, with a presumption they will be dismissed if found guilty.

Thankfully, the numbers of deaths in police custody have been declining, from 65 in 1998 to 17 last year and 14 the previous year.

But still, given the huge amount of recommendations being made here, it is clear that major improvements are needed.

These changes need to be made quickly to improve the relationship and trust between public and police.

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