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To prevent more deaths in police custody, Britain must treat vulnerable people with much better care

Police culture under the spotlight. via

In order to prevent future deaths and serious incidents in police custody in Britain, a fundamental change is needed in the culture and training of the police. That’s the finding of a long-awaited independent review into the issue by the Scottish lawyer Elish Angiolini that was finally made public on October 30.

The Angiolini review stresses that the police need to move from a culture of law enforcement to care, particularly in relation to vulnerable individuals, such as those with mental health or substance dependency issues. She argues that the shift should be driven by an increased focus on human rights throughout the provision of public services in the UK.

In the criminal justice system this has been particularly evident through the application of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to life.

My own research shows that Article 2 imposes an obligation on the state to demonstrate that it enables the right to life of individuals in custody. That includes taking all reasonable measures to ensure that individuals are treated with care. This is not always the case, and avoidable deaths occur as a result.

Who is dying in police custody

The Angiolini review was commissioned in July 2015 by Theresa May, when she was home secretary. In March of that year, May met the families of Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis, who died after police contact.

Marcia Rigg, the sister of Sean Rigg, who died in police custody. Katie Collins/PA Archive

Both men were black, and had experienced mental health crises. Juries in coroners’ courts found police used excessive and unnecessary force which played a part in their deaths. The verdicts in both the Rigg and Lewis cases were critical of the lack of care shown to both men.

May has been a vocal and persistent critic of the police, especially regarding perceived discrimination against black and minority ethnic communities by police practices such as stop-and-search, but also in relation to the disproportionate number of black and minority ethnic people who die after police contact. In 2015-16 there were 14 deaths in police custody, down from 17 the previous year, but much lower than the levels in the 1990s or early 2000s, according to figures from the Independent Police Complaints Commission cited in Angiolini’s review.

My research into 68 deaths between 2004 and 2015 revealed that if you are from a black or minority ethnic community, or if you have mental health issues, or a substance dependency, you are significantly more likely to die after police contact than if you are not from one of these groups. Most people who die after police contact have not committed a violent crime and have not been violent while in the care of the police.

The issues of mental health and substance dependency clearly underline the question of whether police should be dealing with such individuals. Some schemes are helping the emergency services work more closely together on these issues. A street triage collaboration to deal with individuals who have mental health crises in the West Midlands Police area, which helps identify people in need of support rather than take them to a police cell or A&E, has improved the standards of care to vulnerable people. Angiolini highlights that NHS services and local authorities must also play a role in reducing the number of people who die after contact with the police.

A way forward

The review makes a number of welcome recommendations. These include the phasing out of police cells as “places of safety” for individuals detained under the Mental Health Act. While detention in police custody under the act was always intended to be an exception, not a rule, official reports in recent years show that the use of police cells has been common.

Angiolini also recommends the use of body-worn cameras by all officers in public-facing roles, including in the custody environment. She also recommends improvements in police training on mental health issues and improved protocols between the police, NHS and local authorities on dealing with intoxicated individuals and those with mental health issues.

While the government has broadly welcomed these recommendations, it has yet to commit to their full implementation. But it has supported two key recommendations: that families who lose loved ones in police custody should have access to legal aid without means testing, and that children under the age of 18 who are arrested under the Mental Health Act should not be detained in police custody.

Campaign groups such as INQUEST and family support groups have welcomed the review and its recommendations as laudable and representing meaningful change. But families have been critical about the equivocal government response to Angiolini’s recommendations since its release.

I am sceptical about where the funding will come from to ensure that the majority of the review’s findings will be implemented, given that we live in an age of austerity where police and other emergency services are expected to do more, with less. The government’s purported desire to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights in the aftermath of Brexit adds further uncertainty over whether the recommendations of the Angiolini review – which are, after all, built around the human rights of people who come into contact with the police – will be implemented. While reviews represent the potential for change, they do not necessarily equate to change in working cultures and practices on the ground.

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