7 September 2021

The number of people dying in and following police custody is at the same level as it has been over the past decade and the use of force by officers has increased, despite the Government recently claiming it has made  “significant progress” in preventing deaths in custody.

In its latest Progress Update on the Report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody, known as the Angiolini Review, the Government state that of the 110 recommendations it has delivered 65, while a further 20 are delivered in part and 12 rejected. (Thirteen further recommendations are not mentioned at all.)

The recommendations, made in 2017 by Dame Elish Angiolini QC, for improving the way police and health authorities in England and Wales respond to people with mental ill health, included how the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and others respond to these deaths.

A key aim of the review was to address dangerous use of police force and restraint against people in mental health crisis. Other recommendations included ensuring that IOPC investigators consider if discriminatory attitudes play a part in restraint-related deaths, addressing the issue of racism highlighted by many bereaved families.

The Government say “significant progress” has been made in response to the review. However, no mention is made of the fact that the number of deaths in or following police custody has remained at a similar level for the past ten years.

IOPC data: time series reporting

IOPC data: time series reporting

The latest data from the IOPC reports there were 19 deaths in or following police custody in 2020-21, an increase of one from the previous year. The IOPC figures on deaths in or following custody do not include all deaths following police contact, including some deaths where police restraint was used.

Some deaths fall into the ‘other’ category of reporting because the person had not yet been arrested or detained, as was the case when Mouayed Bashir died this year, and when Rashan Charles, and Edson da Costa died in 2017. As a result,  the actual numbers of concerning deaths are higher.

If meaningful action is being taken by the government, police forces and public bodies then why do preventable deaths keep occurring?

The Angiolini review was set up following a number of high profile preventable deaths in police contact, alongside pressure from the families of Olaseni Lewis and Sean Rigg. The then Home Secretary Theresa May commissioned Dame Angiolini to lead the independent review to examine “major issues surrounding deaths and serious incidents in police custody”. INQUEST’s Director Deborah Coles was a special advisor to the Angiolini Review and INQUEST coordinated input from bereaved people affected.

INQUEST’s casework with bereaved families shows that, almost four years on, the very issues which led to the Angiolini review have not been fully addressed.

The Angiolini review argues that the police must recognise that all restraint, particularly against people in mental health crisis, poses a life threatening risk. However, high and rising levels of restraint are still being used by police, including against people in crisis.

The latest official statistics on the use of force for 2019-20 indicate a 13% increase of use of force on the previous year. There were 67,00 incidents of use of force against people perceived to have a mental health condition (a rise of 11,000 from the year before). More than half of those incidents involved restraint.

This use of force data also shows that Black people are five times more likely to have force used against them. So far in 2021 there have been three deeply concerning deaths in police contact in Wales, all of which followed police restraint against men from racialised groups, and all are reported to have been experiencing mental ill health.*

The 2021 Progress Update is a welcome sign that the Government are serious about continuing to respond to the Angiolini review, but it invites new questions about transparency.

Not only does the update leave 13 recommendations unaccounted for, it also doesn’t specify which recommendations have been completed, done in part or rejected.

On race and ethnicity, for example, the Government claim seven out of nine recommendations have been “fully completed” but without referring to each recommendation specifically, it’s unclear how the Government evidence this claim.

To enable the public to engage in thorough and detailed scrutiny on issues of policing, the Government must expand the scope of their Progress Updates to include reference to all recommendations made. Only then can progress be evidenced.

Ultimately, only when we see a real reduction in deaths in police custody and contact can we be confident that the action required has been taken. And only then will the bereaved families who worked hard to make this important review happen be confident that it has led to real and lasting change.

* The three deaths following police restraint in Wales were: Mouayed Bashir, a 29 year old man with Sudanese heritage, who died following restraint by Gwent police in Newport on 17 February 2021; Mohamud Hassan, a 24 year old man with Somali heritage, who died following restraint by Cardiff police on 9 January 2021; and Leighton Jones, a 30-year-old father with Mixed heritage, who was restrained near his home in Cardiff June 19 2021.

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