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Number of deaths in or following police custody reached highest figure recorded for five years, police watchdog says

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) published its annual ‘Deaths during or following police contact’ report for 2022/23 yesterday, 28 July.

Published for the 19th year, the statistics provide an official record setting out the number of such deaths, the circumstances in which they happen, and any underlying factors. Figures across the different categories can fluctuate each year, and any conclusions about trends need to be treated with caution.

Commenting on this year’s figures, IOPC Acting Director General Tom Whiting said: 

“Sadly, we have seen a significant rise this year in the number of deaths in or following police custody, up to 23 from 11, and the highest figure recorded for five years. While last year’s figure was particularly low, the fact we have seen a sharp reverse is concerning and raises challenges which spread well beyond policing.

“All but two of the 23 deaths featured links to drugs and/or alcohol and over half of those who died had mental health concerns. The circumstances of each death will vary and need investigation to understand the detailed causes. But these vulnerabilities are consistent, common factors year on year. When vulnerable people in need of specialist care suffer a crisis, far too often their needs are not met by other services, and they come into contact with a police service which isn’t designed or equipped to provide for them. 

“It is notable that in several of the deaths, police officers have attended to people who are in the midst of a medical episode, and in some cases restrain them, while waiting for an ambulance. While use of force has not necessarily contributed to the deaths, we know that restraint carries risk. Police officers cannot be expected to demonstrate the medical expertise necessary to best care for an individual in such circumstances.

“Our independent investigations examine the actions of the police and are an important part of ensuring there is accountability when the service or an individual’s conduct falls below the standards we expect. We also play our part by reinforcing and embedding learning from our investigations into policing practice so officers are as prepared as possible for the difficult circumstances they face. Our Learning the Lessons magazine next month will focus on safety in police custody.

“I am not alone in calling again for concerted action across agencies to help prevent these deaths wherever possible. It is clear there is an over-reliance on the police service as first responders in dealing with vulnerable people in crisis. Police chiefs have expressed understandable concern about the heavy demand placed on their resources in dealing with mental health incidents. We welcome any initiative that ensures that people in distress are receiving the most appropriate service from the most appropriate agency. In that context, we will monitor the development of the Right Care, Right Person scheme as it is rolled out across police forces. I would urge police leaders and those in health and justice systems to work closely together to improve arrangements for frontline healthcare and mental health support.

“For each of the deaths reported here there will be a bereaved family dealing with the death of their loved one and I would like to again express my sympathies to everyone affected by these events.”

(Source: IOPC)

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