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Investment outside criminal justice system 'vital' to improving police custody

Chairman of IPCC warns of lack of alternative provision and resources
Published - 28/06/2016 By - Helena Hickey - Police Oracle

Real improvements to police custody cannot be made without investment outside the criminal justice system, the chairman of the police watchdog has said.

IPCC Chair Dame Anne Owers told delegates at the Preventing Deaths in Police Care conference that while police custody practices have changed over recent years, the availability of other services remains a concern.

"Many forces now have liaison and diversion which is great, but where do you divert these people to?", she said. 

"Where do they go? Look at what has happened to child and adolescent mental health services for example."

She added while deaths in custody have generally been declining, those who are committing suicide very shortly after leaving police custody are on the rise - although highlighted this could be down to better reporting of the issue.

"One of our concerns around the organisation becoming more risk averse is it is becoming care averse as well - technically doing everything so people don't die on your watch but then their underlying problems remain and could in fact leave them even more vulnerable on release. 

"You might be keeping them alive in police custody but there needs to be alternative provision to ensure their wellbeing once they leave."

Dame Anne also urged the service to look at the definition of 'vulnerability' currently in use and bring it up to date. 

"Police have a real problem about what vulnerability means," she said. 
"There is not a consistent definition between forces and that can create some problems.

"What hasn't changed in recent years is the vulnerability of those who die in custody - it is those with mental health and alcohol and drug issues. The same kind of people are as likely to die in custody now as they were ten years ago."

She also urged forces to "cherish custody staff" and value the role they play within the service. 

"I think it is a really important job and not just a role to take on get to the next rank up. Sometimes I think it is not given the importance it needs."

Her message was echoed by Chris Bath, Chairman of the National Appropriate Adult Network.

"Custody deserves much more professional recognition than it currently gets. Custody officers are in an incredible position to influence the rest of the force, whether for good or ill. 

"But I've had instances where superintendents have said that custody is seen as a punishment, where they might put someone who is obstinate or a bit harder to control, which is a worry."

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