Police 'could help prevent' 400 deaths after custody

Woman in police cell
Image caption The report said half those who took their lives after being released from custody had known mental health difficulties

Four hundred people killed themselves shortly after being released from police custody in England and Wales in the last seven years, a report says.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission blamed many of these suicides on "serious gaps" in the care of detained people.

Christina Barnes, the EHRC's policy head, called on the NHS to share mental health records with the police.

The government said suicides were down but that each death was a "failure".

The commission examined data from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) from April 2009 to the end of March 2016.

'Preventable' deaths

"There's a lack of accountability and responsibility for these individuals," Ms Barnes told BBC One's Breakfast programme.

She said people were "being released without any sort of care or support around them" because police were unaware whether a person had mental health difficulties.

Half of those who committed suicide had known mental health issues but were not given support that "could have helped prevented their deaths", she said.

"We'd like to see basic pieces of information from the NHS being shared with police so they can be made aware of existing conditions," Ms Barnes said.

Durham's Chief Constable, Michael Barton, said that the police had changed its approach to post-custody care but that the deaths were "unacceptably high".

Speaking on Breakfast, he said "everybody who is released is now released on a care plan" and that he is "really optimistic" numbers will continue to fall.

'Social exclusion'

The report shows there were 400 "apparent suicides" of people who had been detained at police stations during the seven-year period to March 2016.

Almost all of the "hidden deaths" included in the statistics occurred within 48 hours of release from custody, although a small number, which happened outside that timeframe, were also among the total.

Of those who died, 128 (32%) had been arrested over allegations of sexual abuse.

The commission said: "Sexual offences, especially in relation to children, are particularly taboo and lead many offenders to feel high levels of shame and experience high levels of social exclusion."

A further 83 people (21%) who had been investigated over crimes of violence took their own lives; 44 (11%) had faced breach of the peace or criminal damage allegations, and 38 (10%) had been in custody on suspicion of driving offences.

Image caption The EHRC's Christina Barnes said police officers have "limited access" to mental health records

The underlying trend over the seven years was upwards, although the number of deaths last year - 60 - was the lowest it had been since 2011/12.

The Home Office highlighted the fact that there were 10 fewer deaths than in the previous year - down from 70 in 2014/15 - but said it was not "complacent" and had launched an independent review to identify "areas for improvement."

A spokeswoman added: "Every death in or following police custody represents a failure and has the potential to dramatically undermine the relationship between the police and the communities they serve.

"Over recent years police forces have worked closely with NHS England to improve the quality and provision of custody health services and build better local partnerships.

Paedophile suspect hanging

In 2014, Michael Parkes, from Daventry, Northamptonshire, hanged himself a couple of days after being questioned by police on suspicion of sexual offences.

Mr Parkes had been caught by an internet "paedophile hunter" having arranged to meet someone he thought was a 12-year-old girl.

A separate case, highlighted in the EHRC report, concerned a young person who had been caught in possession of cannabis while on a family holiday.

He killed himself after being later wrongly issued with a further summons at his home address.

The Home Office said it would "consider all of the findings in detail when the report is published."

But the commission called on ministers to set up an "inter-agency summit" to tackle the issue.

David Isaac, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: "When the state detains people, it also has a very high level of responsibility to ensure they are safely rehabilitated back into their communities, particularly those who may be vulnerable.

"Our report reveals a fractured state of post-detention care that is potentially leading to hundreds of deaths."

The commission said all apparent suicides within two days of release should be referred to the IPCC.

As a "minimum requirement" it said custody health care staff should have "prompt access" to NHS records.

Its report also looked at cases of prisoners who had died within 28 days after being released. However, these statistics were thought to be less reliable than the police data, showing 66 non-natural deaths over five years, most of which were from a drug overdose.

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