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Changes to custody structure 'positive' but improvements still to be made

Joint inspection found detainees were well treated but raised concerns over provision for children

Changes to the structure of police custody in London have been a positive development but there is still more work to do, a joint inspection has found.

In January 2015 the Met Police centralised all of its custody facilities under the title ‘Met Detention’ with facilities previously managed by local borough commanders being replaced by seven police custody clusters.

An inspection of the southern cluster – which includes four custody suites at Brixton, Croydon, Sutton and Wandsworth, said the changes had led to improvements.

“The change appeared to be a positive development, providing organisational coherence and consistency throughout the MPS custody operations,” said Martin Lomas, Deputy Chief Inspector of Prisons and Dru Sharpling, HM Inspector of Constabulary.

In particular it highlighted the good treatment of detainees by staff, excellent partnership working for those suffering from mental health issues and good risk-assessments which addressed ongoing concerns.

“Outcomes for mentally ill people detained under the Mental Health Act were excellent as a result of partnerships with mental health services and it was rare for anyone detained under section 136 to be brought to a police station,” the report states.

“A clear policy highlighted the exceptional circumstances in what might have been appropriate and only 20 detainees had been detained in police custody under section 136 since April 2014. A mental health triage pilot and effective links with community mental health services assisted with this.”

However, concerns were raised around a number of issues, including a shortage of staff which meant the department operated with only ten inspectors and three acting inspectors.

“There was sufficient cell capacity to deal with demand, however staffing shortages meant custody suites were busy, staff were under pressure and sometimes detainees waited a long time before being booked in,” the report states.

“MDS custody had introduced the role of a ‘grip sergeant’ whose job was to oversee case progression; however the person was quickly drawn into operational matters to ease the pressure and they could not fulfil their primary role.”

The provision for children was also identified as ‘poor’, particularly around their prolonged detention in custody.

“In the year up to the inspection, 197 children had been charged and detained with no alternative accommodation found for them, which was too high,” it states.

“Custody staff told us no local authority secure accommodation was available across the boroughs […] but MDS staff could not tell us how many requests for alternative accommodation had been made as not all children had to be placed in secure accommodation.”

Five out of six children in the sample looked at were detained for between 12 and 24 hours, with a number held in cells overnight. Part of the problem was identified as being due to a delay in the provision of Appropriate Adults, with police taking too long before requesting an AA and the whole use of the scheme said to be “extremely chaotic”.

“The Metropolitan Police Service chief officer group should engage with its counterparts in local councils to instigate an immediate review of local authority accommodation provision for children,” the report urges.

Another area of concern was around use of force, particularly where it was used as a means of preventing vulnerable detainees from self-harm.

“We were told that handcuffs and leg restraints were used to manage people who were self-harming or threatening self-harm. It was questionable whether this was appropriate care; in some cases the leg restrains remained on for too long after the detainee had become compliant,” it states.

It cited the example of a man who was handcuffed after being confrontational towards staff and saying he would harm himself and others. Staff attempted to interact with him and the handcuffs were removed but the detainee remained in leg restraints for over six hours during which an inspector carried out a review but did not mention the prolonged use of the restraints.

Recording of use of force was also poor and although an electronic form was available for staff, it was not used comprehensively and had a “very high error rate”.

HMIs recommended that the force collate and use such data more meaningfully and analyse force trends for training purposes. 

'Committed to improvement'

The Met said it welcomes the report and is already taking steps to address the findings through the implementation of an improvement plan.

Work underway to address children charged and held in custody when alternative accomodation is not available includes strengthening partnerships and processes with local authorities to identify appropriate alternative accomodation as quickly as possible, said a spokesman.

With regards to data capture and analysis [...] Met Detention is working towards standardising practices and procedures and improving overall performance around custody checks and associated administration based functions, to ensure data is accurately recorded. 

It is recognised that NSPIS custody system has limitations surrounding data capture. We have been working with an IT team (MiPS) to ensure the new system being developed is better able to meet the increasing demands for information and data capture that have arisen since Met Detention was launched.

Photo courtesy of West Midlands Police used under Creative Commons License.