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Government response to the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody

1.1. Deaths in, or following, police custody are defined as those deaths that happen whilst a person is under arrest or detained under the Mental Health Act 1983, or where a person is no longer detained but their death arises from injuries or medical problems that developed or were identified during their detention. This includes deaths that occur not only within a police custody suite, but also on private or medical premises, or in any other public place.

1.2. Natural causes have been the most common known cause of deaths in police custody in England and Wales between 2004/05 and 2014/15, accounting for 51 percent of causes of death in this period. Drugs and/or alcohol also featured as causes in around half of deaths (49%), and an even higher proportion of those who died had an association with drugs or alcohol (82%). Mental health is also a significant contributing factor; according to the latest annual statistics published by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), eight out of 14 people who died in or following police custody were identified as having mental health concerns.1 Use of restraint against detainees was identified as a cause of death by post-mortem reports in 10 per cent of deaths in police custody between 2004/05 and 2014/15. Those who die in police custody in England and Wales are typically male, aged between 31 and 50, and from a white ethnic background.

1.3. Since the 1990s, there have been large reductions in the number of deaths in or following police custody. This likely reflects improved training, guidance and practices in a number of areas,2 but most significantly in suicide prevention, drawing on learning including from the IPCC’s independent investigations. Recent Government initiatives have also limited the use of police cells as places of safety for mental health detentions (banning them entirely in the case of children and limiting them to exceptional circumstances for adults) and introduced more stringent governance and scrutiny of police use of force.

1.4. The focus of this Government is to go further still. It is essential that deaths and serious incidents in police custody are reduced as far as possible and, when they do occur, that they are investigated thoroughly, agencies are held to account, lessons are learned where improvements are identified, and bereaved families are provided with the support they need. It is for this reason that the Government commissioned the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody.

1.5. This response to the Independent Review sets out progress in those areas where Dame Elish Angiolini has made recommendations for change, including progress made since the review was commissioned in 2015. It also identifies where new initiatives or programmes of work have already commenced directly in response to the review’s findings.

1.6. Whilst progress is outlined in the areas of healthcare in police custody, support for families and the inquest process, it is recognised that significant cross-agency work is required to develop solutions to these longstanding areas of concern. The newly-reformed Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody will take these strands forward as priority areas within their programme of work. This will include close collaboration with the Welsh Government to take account of areas which cut across devolved competences.

1.7. The report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody makes 110 recommendations for improvement, categorised under twelve thematic headings: restraint, custody environment, health and wellbeing, funding for families and family support, communications, investigations, coroners and inquests, accountability, training, learning, statistics and research.

1.8. The recommendations fall to a number of Government departments and public sector organisations, and many of them are cross-cutting and multi-disciplinary in nature. In the following pages of this response, each of Dame Elish’s thematic headings is addressed in turn, in order to ensure the recommendations are addressed in the round. The corresponding recommendation numbers are indicated in brackets at the end of the relevant paragraph.