Police custody in Northumbria – further improvements needed

Police custody in Northumbria was mixed and some improvements were necessary, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, and Dru Sharpling, HM Inspector of Constabulary, publishing the report of an unannounced inspection.

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Northumbria – Joint inspection of police custody suites

The inspection was part of a national programme of joint inspections of police custody. This was the second inspection of police custody in Northumbria: the first took place in August 2011.Northumbria covers a large geographical area and ran seven full-time custody suites: Newcastle Etal Lane, Sunderland Gillbridge, Washington, South Shields, Gateshead, Bedlington and Wallsend/Middle Engine Lane, as well as three part-time rural suites at Hexham, Alnwick and Berwick, and three part-time resilience suites at Southwick, Whickham and North Shields.

Inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) was involved in the training and development of an active Independent Custody Visitor scheme;
  • the police service was in the process of opening a new custody suite while closing existing buildings, but continued to maintain those buildings to a good standard;
  • individual detainee and officer interaction was respectful and sensitive and there were cases of exceptional individual attention;
  • police officers made efforts to keep children out of custody; however when cases were more complex, staff did not pursue other options, such as the local authority, to provide alternative accommodation;
  • there were examples of good multi-agency working to support detainees with a history of substance misuse; and
  • the force, with help from partner agencies, had provided an improved scheme to help keep mentally ill people out of police cells.

However, inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • custody recording systems involved a mix of paper and computer records, allowing opportunities for human error and omission in recording strategic and individual detainee information;
  • the force did not have sufficient focus on learning from adverse incidents, which included learning from four IPCC investigations, nor did it have robust quality assurance systems in place;
  • in most cases, risk assessments were routine and mechanistic;
  • handovers could be subject to incorrect recording of risk information; and
  • clinical governance of health care had not improved since the 2011 inspection, and medical rooms varied in levels of cleanliness.

Nick Hardwick and Dru Sharpling said:

“This report describes some good individual care of detainees but some processes to ensure this happened on a consistent basis required improvement. This report provides a number of recommendations to assist the force and the Police and Crime Commissioner to improve provision further. We expect our findings to be considered in the wider context of priorities and resourcing, and for an action plan to be provided in due course.”

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Northumbria – Joint inspection of police custody suites


  1. A copy of the full report can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website from 29 July 2014 at www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons
  2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  3. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) is an independent inspectorate, inspecting policing in the public interest, and rigorously examines the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces to tackle crime and terrorism, improve criminal justice and raise confidence. HMIC inspects and regulates all 43 police forces in England and Wales.
  4. Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 enables a police officer to remove someone from a public place and take them to a place of safety – for example, a police station or health care setting. It also states clearly that the purpose of being taken to the place of safety is to enable the person to be examined by a doctor and interviewed by an approved social worker, and for the making of any necessary arrangements for treatment or care. 
  5. This joint inspection was carried out from 4–12 February 2014. 
  6. Please contact Jane Parsons (HMI Prisons press office) on 07880 787452 or Phil Gillen (HMIC Press Office) on 020 3513 0600 if you would like more information.