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Successive governments ‘willing to accept’ people dying in or after police custody

Campaigners furious after latest figures show a decade-long failure to reduce the numbers of deaths

A FAILURE to reduce the number of people dying in or after police custody over the last decade show successive governments’ “willingness to accept these deaths,” campaigners said today. 

The damning comments by charity Inquest were in response to a police watchdog’s latest figures showing there were 19 deaths during or after custody in 2020/21 — an increase of one over the previous year and in line with the previous decade’s average. 

The charity said the figures show the “same patterns” despite recommendations from multiple probes and a 2017 review on deaths in custody. 

Of the 19 people who died, two thirds had mental health issues at the time of their deaths, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said, while 14 had links to drugs or alcohol. 

Seventeen were white and two were black, with 17 being male and two female. 

The year also saw one person fatally shot by police, as well as 25 deaths in police-related car crashes and 54 suicides after people were held in custody. 

The IOPC said force was used against 12 of the 19 people who died, but that the use of restraints did “not necessarily contribute to the death.” 

Of those who had force used against them, four were white, three black and two were Asian, the watchdog added. 

This appears to be in line with Inquest’s findings that deaths of black, Asian and ethnic minority people in custody following the use of force are disproportionate compared to white people. 

The charity’s director Deborah Coles said the latest figures give “the impression that successive governments are willing to accept these deaths, which we know from our casework are often caused by systemic failures to safeguard intoxicated people or people in mental health crisis, dangerous restraint and neglect.

“The focus of this government, however, is denying structural racism and inequality, appearing tough, ignoring evidence and repeating failed policies focused on criminalisation,” she continued. 

“Ultimately to prevent further deaths and harm, we must look beyond policing and redirect resources into community, health, welfare and specialist services.”

Vice-chair of BAME Lawyers for Justice Lee Jasper said the figures were “extraordinarily worrying” given they remained at the same level despite the pandemic when there were fewer people on the streets. 

“So where someone might say, well these figures have remained stable, you have to remember that those figures remained stable within the context of a pandemic — and one would have really expected those figures to decline,” he told the Morning Star. 

The activist, who has supported several families seeking justice for relatives who died in police custody, added: “I think the government has shown a remarkable degree of complacency in relation to deaths in custody and it continues really to represent a critical fault line in relations between communities and police services.”

The IOPC said that some deaths were avoidable due to an “over-reliance” on police services responding to mental health crises. 

IOPC director general Michael Lockwood said that this was “unfair to those who have died, their families, and the often ill-equipped officers involved.”

“These issues cannot be solved by the police service alone and need a concerted, system-wide response to help prevent future deaths from occurring,” he said. 

Mr Jasper added that the figures were “doubly disappointing” given government failures to enact key recommendations into Dame Elish Angliolini’s 2017 review into deaths in police custody, which he said could have prevented such incidents. 

Among proposed changes that have not occurred include the introduction of a national policing policy to limit the use of force and restraint against anyone vulnerable or with mental health problems.

“The last place a person with addiction or mental health problems should be taken to is a police station,” Mr Jasper added. 

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have a zero-tolerance attitude towards these rare, but devastating incidents and we recently set out the significant progress the government has made, along with police and prisons, to address this issue – including reducing the use of police custody as a place of safety for people experiencing a mental health crisis by 98 per cent since 2012.

“We will continue to hold organisations to account, provide enhanced training for officers and improve support for families.”

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