Police are being forced to act as social workersBMJ 2005; 331 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7527.1226-d (Published 24 November 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1226
People are dying in police custody in Britain because officers are having to work as “social workers of last resort,” coping with drug users and mentally ill people who should rightfully be dealt with in hospital, says Nick Harwood, chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Speaking as the commission released its figures for deaths during or after police contact in England and Wales during 2004-5, Mr Hardwick said that there could have been a “significant reduction” in the 36 deaths during or after police custody last year and in the 46 suicides that occurred soon after release if institutions properly addressed the issue of the force's role in coping with mentally ill people.
The 36 deaths in custody accounted for more than a third of the 106 people who died during or after police contact in that year.
Mr Hardwick said that violent or troubled people were being kept in police cells because of a lack of NHS beds, meaning that officers were being forced to work beyond their expertise, he said. “We need more appropriate facilities in the health sector [and] rigorous systems for the transfer of information[between police and NHS], and the police need proper training and support.”
A commission spokesperson described a number of cases—including that of an autistic boy who was kept unaccompanied in police custody for four days and a schizophrenic man who found himself the victim of an armed raid because he had forgotten to take his treatment—where police were forced to take the place of hospital staff.
David Petch, one of the organisation's commissioners for the south east of England, described an incident in which the police had found a man on a bridge preparing to jump and had brought him into hospital, only for him to be released the next day, whereupon he committed suicide. “We need to make sure information that is clear at 2 am in the cell gets to the doctor,” he said.
The current situation under sections 135 and 136 of the 1983 Mental Health Act, whereby a police officer is obliged to escort a mentally ill person to a “place of safety,” which could include a custody unit, was also unsatisfactory, he said. “The legislation needs looking at. A custody unit is not a place of safety for someone who is vulnerable. Hospitals need units to deal with these kinds of late night emergency.”
In conclusion Mr Hardwick voiced his support for comments made by the chief of the Metropolitan police, Ian Blair, last week, that a proper debate on the role of the police force was needed.
He said that the rise in the number of deaths during or after police contact from 82 in 2003-4 to 106 in 2004-5 was due to new reporting methods. However, he did concede that an actual rise in the number of deaths involving police vehicles, from 36 in 2003/4 to 44 in 2004/5, was a cause for concern. The commission was assessing the training given to police drivers, he said.
Deaths in custody and deaths involving police vehicles together accounted for 80 of the deaths during or after police contact. Of the remaining 26 deaths, three were fatal shootings and 23 were other deaths “during or after other contact”—those where the police were to some extent involved but that were not shootings, deaths in custody, or deaths caused by vehicles. Two examples of such deaths would be where the police turned up to the site of a brawl and found someone already dead or where the police tried to persuade an elderly woman sitting in the park to come inside from the cold and found later that she hadn't and had died of hypothermia.
Deaths During or Following Police Contact: Statistics for England and Wales 2004/05 is available at http://www.ipcc.gov.uk/.