28 July 2023

‘Concerning’ rise in people dying in or following police custody, watchdog says

28 July 2023

The number of deaths in or following police custody has seen a “concerning” increase over the past year, surpassing the average recorded over a 10-year period, a watchdog has said.

Figures from the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) show the number of deaths in or following police custody has surged from 11 in the previous year to 23 in 2022/23.

The figure is the highest since 2017/18 when there were also 23 fatalities and is also the joint highest in 16 years, with the previous record being 27 deaths reported in 2006/07.

The average number of deaths during the last decade was approximately 16.

It is clear there is an over-reliance on the police service as first responders in dealing with vulnerable people in crisis

Among the 23 individuals who died in or following police custody, 22 were men and one was a woman. The age range varied from 20 to 93 years old, with 19 victims being white, two black, one of mixed ethnicity and one Asian.

Mental health concerns were prevalent among the deceased, with 13 people having mental health conditions such as depression, psychosis, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and self-harm.

Additionally, four people had been detained under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 and 21 out of 23 individuals were known to have a link to alcohol and/or drugs at the time of their arrest.

Commenting on the report, 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.”

Mr Whiting noted that 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”.

He added: “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.”

He said the IOPC will monitor the development of the Right Care, Right Person scheme as it is rolled out across police forces and urged police leaders and those in health and justice systems to “work closely together to improve arrangements for frontline healthcare and mental health support”.

The IOPC is a non-departmental public body responsible for overseeing the police complaints system in England and Wales.

The annual data released by the watchdog on deaths during or following police contact also revealed fatal road traffic incidents (RTIs) decreased to 26, the lowest since 2020/21, and that there were three fatal police shootings, compared with two last year, consistent with the average recorded since 2004/05.

Recorded apparent suicides following custody were 52, the report showed, lower than the 57 last year.

However, the number remains higher than the average before 2012/13, with reporting dependent on police forces establishing the link between custody and suicide.

Lucy Mckay, spokesperson for charity INQUEST, which helps families who have lost a loved one after contact with police, said: “No one should by dying at the hands of police. Yet once again we are seeing an increasing number of deaths.

“Too often these deaths involve mental illness or intoxication, and dangerous use of force and restraint by police.

“We know from our work with bereaved families that so many of these deaths are preventable, both at the point of death and long before things reached a crisis point.”

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox