Custody staff ‘failing to protect detainees from self-harm’

Custody staff are failing to follow safeguarding policies and guidance put in place to protect detainees from self-harm or suicide attempts, the Independent Police Complaints Commission warned yesterday.

It found that one in 1,686 people detained in police custody experiences a  “near miss” of serious self-harm or illness, of which 400 nearly die, each year in England and Wales.

However, this figure could be “considerably greater” if it included incidents that are not reported to the forensic medical examiner (FME) or those that are underreported to the authorities by FMEs, IPCC said.

The IPCC study found that custody staff were not adhering to PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act) codes of practice and the associated policies because of the “notable number of cases” where custody practice failed to reflect the policies and guidance.

Mental illness

It urged custody suite managers to reinforce to staff policies, procedures and guidance, to ensure staff were trained to identify and deal with vulnerable detainees – in the IPCC study, it was known that 41% had a mental illness – and to implement good quality risk assessment practice and supervision.

The IPCC study, which focused on incidents in the Metropolitan Police in 2005-6, found that nearly half of people who had a near miss while in police custody attempted suicide or self-harm. The next highest category was drug misuse, which accounted for one-third of cases.

However, IPCC chair Nick Hardwick said it would be “unwise” to assume these issues related only to the Metropolitan Police and it was likely that these were “general issues” for those managing and working in custody suites in England and Wales.

Low staff levels

The study, Near Misses in Police Custody, found that custody suites were failing to adequately check and rouse detainees, search cells and people in line with PACE guidance, while battling against low staff levels.

Jason Payne-James, a co-author of the IPCC report and vice-president of the Faculty of Forensic and Legal Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians of London, said: “The way to reduce deaths and near misses in police custody is through good risk assessment and better healthcare provision. Forces need to ensure that their custody staff are adequately trained to identify the healthcare issues they are likely to face on a day to day basis.”

During the period of the IPCC study, six detainees died in Metropolitan Police cells and 28 people died in custody in England and Wales.

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