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Tuesday, 31 October 2017

'Drying out' centres urged for those held under influence of drugs or alcohol

Written by Hayden Smith

Specialist "drying out" centres could be created to hold people who are detained while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, a major review suggests.

Ministers were urged to look into the viability of such facilities as an alternative to police custody or accident and emergency departments.

The concept is floated in a long-awaited review into deaths and serious incidents in police custody.

The wide-ranging report, first announced by the Government more than two years ago, also:

  • Argues that police practice must recognise that all restraint has the potential to cause death;
  • Warns there is no consistency of training in restraint techniques across the 43 police forces in England and Wales;
  • Says the issue of delays in investigations and prosecution decision-making is of "grave concern" to families of the deceased and police officers, who may be left in limbo for very substantial periods of time;
  • Notes that the opinion of families who spoke to the review is that police officers are "seen to be above the law";
  • Recommends that officers involved in death or serious incident in custody should not confer or speak to each other following an incident, and prior to producing their initial accounts about their recollections of what happened, other than for "pressing operational reasons";
  • Acknowledges that there is evidence of disproportionate deaths of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in restraint-related deaths;
  • Calls for ex-police officers to be phased out as lead investigators within the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Figures show that between 2004/05 and 2014/15, four in five (82%) people who died in or following police custody had some link to alcohol and/or drugs.

The report, which contains 110 recommendations and runs to nearly 300 pages, says drying out centres are widely used in Australia and have the potential to reduce deaths in police stations.

"Specialist staff and on-site healthcare workers are potentially better able to give the care and observation that police custody staff may not be able to give," the review says.

"This is not to traduce the ability of custody officers, some with many years of experience, to properly care for and monitor intoxicated detainees, but in a chaotic environment police resources may be stretched."

The Government should consider piloting a centre or centres in large urban areas, where it is most likely to be cost effective, according to the report.

It notes that of eight prosecutions of police officers in connection with a death in custody in the last 15 years, all have ended with acquittals.

"In fact, there has never been a successful prosecution for manslaughter in this context, despite unlawful killing verdicts in coroner's inquests," the assessment says.

"This does not prove that the criminal justice system has failed to deliver justice, but it goes to the heart of why families so often feel let down by the system."

It makes clear that the vast majority of police officers conduct themselves with integrity at all times.

The review, carried out by Dame Elish Angiolini, was commissioned by Theresa May in July 2015 after she met bereaved families.

In response, the Government committed to reviewing existing guidance so that the starting presumption is that legal aid should be awarded for representation of bereaved relatives at an inquest following a suspicious death or suicide in police custody or in prison.

Ministers also said that from December, police cells will not be used as "places of safety" for under-18s detained under the Mental Health Act.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said: "When my predecessor Theresa May met the bereaved families, she was struck by the difficulties they faced as they sought answers about what happened to their loved ones.

"This simply isn't right, and is why the Government is taking steps to ensure that families bereaved in this way in future, get the support and answers they need."

The Independent Police Complaints Commission said the question of the employment of those who have worked for the police is one that has been raised throughout its history.

It said: "It is important that all our staff, whatever their previous background, work within a culture of independence and challenge, and that this is reflected in our recruitment, management and quality assurance processes."

The commission also said many of the review's findings echoed the conclusions of its own internal review published in 2014.

In its response to the review, the IPCC also said that fewer than 25% of its investigative staff were ex-police officers.

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