Vulnerable children and adults need care, not custody
Children, people who are mentally unwell and other vulnerable members of society are being locked in cells and sometimes unnecessarily criminalised because police custody is being used as a substitute for social and health care, found a report published today by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).
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HMIC has today published a report on the welfare of vulnerable people in police custody, following a thematic inspection commissioned by the Home Secretary. HMIC was asked to look specifically at the treatment of children, people who were mentally unwell and people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds (who can be vulnerable because of their minority status).
HMIC, assisted by HMI Prisons, the Care Quality Commission and the Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, inspected five forces and three boroughs in the Metropolitan Police Service. Inspectors took into account findings from the rolling programmes of custody and child protection inspections, and identified a number of themes with potentially national implications.
We found that custody could have been avoided for a number of vulnerable adults and children, had other action been taken by police officers, or other services been available to support these individuals.
- the majority of people detained by the police were treated respectfully and were reasonably well cared for. Officers tried to meet the needs of vulnerable people, but inconsistency of practices and procedures both within and between forces led, on occasion, to some poor treatment;
- poor data significantly hindered the ability of the police to identify how vulnerable people were treated in custody; more needs to be done to ensure that the use of force is effectively monitored;
- frontline police officers and custody officers spending significant amounts of time on caring for people who were mentally unwell;
- children and mentally unwell people were being held in custody because no alternative provision from other care services had been identified;
- data from forces suggest that people from African-Caribbean groups were disproportionately represented in the number of detentions and strip-searches (compared to the general population);
- the measures of control the police have at their disposal are designed more for those who are violent through ill-will rather than for frightened children, or those who are agitated because of mental ill-health; and
- on too many occasions, police were the default response for vulnerable people in crisis.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Dru Sharpling said:
“There can be no argument that the needs of a child, left abandoned by his or her parents, or a person in the midst of a mental health crisis, are often very different to those of a serial offender. Yet the bricks and mortar of the police cells do not and cannot make that distinction. I think the public would be surprised to learn that police cells are very often full of vulnerable adults and children, rather than suspects accused of serious crimes.
“I am particularly concerned to find that on occasions when officers were left with no other option, they resorted to detaining vulnerable people in police custody in order to get them the support they needed.
“Our job is to inspect efficiency and effectiveness of policing in England and Wales, but we recognise that the protection of vulnerable people is not just the responsibility of the police. We ask a lot from the police; and generally, we found they respond to this challenge. It is clear, however, that police custody provision has to improve to ensure that vulnerable people are safeguarded effectively and, where appropriate, diverted from the criminal justice system. Each public service must fully discharge its responsibilities to ensure that police custody does not become the default option for vulnerable people in need of care.”
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- 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 all 43 police forces in England and Wales together with other major policing bodies.
- In January 2014, the Home Secretary commissioned HMIC to conduct a thematic inspection of the welfare of vulnerable people in police custody, “including, but not limited to, those with mental health problems, those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and children”. In particular, the Home Secretary asked us to consider groups for whom there has been “a pronounced concern” about their treatment by the police – especially people of African-Caribbean descent.
- For further information, HMIC’s press office can be contacted during office hours from 8:30am – 5:30pm Monday – Friday on 0203 513 0600.
- HMIC’s out-of-hours press office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217 729.