Police cell deaths inquiry launched as toll rises

Home Office investigates as Police Complaints Authority expresses concern about hangings and drink deaths about
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The Independent Online

Crime Correspondent

An investigation has been launched by the Home Office into the growing number of deaths in police cells, mostly by hanging, the Police Complaints Authority said yesterday.

The authority has called for more research after at least 25 people died in the past year.

In its annual report, the PCA also expressed concern about deaths resulting from high-speed pursuits. The authority supervised a record number of investigations into serious complaints against police officers last year. They were involved in 999 investigations in the year to March, compared to 951 in 1993.

The PCA reported that 68 people died in police stations - about half from hanging - in the years 1991, 1992 and 1993. But in the year to April this year the authority supervised inquiries into 25 deaths in police stations, of which 15 were by hanging.

In January, Martin Hicks, 34, a father of two, hanged himself at Peterlee police station, Co Durham, two days before he was due to appear in court on indecency charges. His body was found just before midnight, collapsed behind the door of his cell during a routine check. At the time, the group Prison Watch called for greater screening of inmates at risk of suicide.

The PCA is concerned that a large number of people appeared to have hanged themselves by attaching home-made ligatures to the outside of the cell door, despite most forces insisting on the cell hatching being kept locked at all times. "Our inquiries suggested that the ventilation in some cells was totally inadequate unless hatches were open. In a number of forces this decision was left to the discretion of the custody officer," the PCA says.

The authority also expressed concern about the number of people dying from alcohol poisoning and drug overdoses. They point to a recent BMA Medical Ethics Committee report that criticised the system whereby police officers without medical knowledge monitor the condition of detainees who are believed to be drunk.

John Cartwright, deputy chairman of the PCA, said the duty may be given a "low priority" in a busy police station.

The report concludes: "The authority has expressed its concern about the deaths in police stations to the Home Office in the hope that more research will be undertaken."

Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, a campaign group, said: "We have been highlighting this issue for the past 10 years, but no action has been taken to stop what in many cases are preventable deaths."

Another worrying trend identified by the PCA is incidents involving pursuits by police vehicles. In 1993, seven people died following crashes. In the past year, the PCA has supervised investigations into 16 deaths involving police vehicles.

The latest incident - not included in yesterday's figures - happened last Monday when a 19-year-old student died after his car was in collision with a police dog-handler's van on an emergency call in Copmanthorpe, North Yorkshire.

The annual report also showed complaints rose from 17,991 to 19,103 - just short of the 1992 record of 19,289.

The PCA considered 11,186 of the total, involving a record 9,979 different cases and incidents, and upheld 11 per cent of complaints - up from the 10 per cent upheld in 1993.

It said 34 complaints led to officers facing criminal charges - the 1993 figure was 27 - while 1,196 complaints led to officers being charged with disciplinary offences, admonished, or being advised about their conduct.