The independent Police Complaints Authority's annual report, published yesterday, said the death of 65 people in custody in England and Wales in the year to April 1999 was the issue that caused it greatest concern. The authority highlighted the disproportionate number of fatalities involving people from ethnic minorities.
The authority also expressed disquiet at the number of complaints against police officers misusing CS spray, including firing it into enclosed areas, such as cars, and using it as method of control rather than self-defence. Almost 500 complaints were lodged and the authority reminded officers that the spray was intended primarily for self-defence.
Peter Moorhouse, the chairman of the PCA, which investigates complaints made by the public against the police, noted that deaths in custody had risen from 48 in 1996-97, to 53 in 1997-98, and 65 in the past year. Of the 65, there were 18 apparent suicides, 26 drug and drink-related fatalities, and 21 medical and natural causes. Nine people, three of whom were black, died after restraint or a struggle with the police. A total of 12 non- white people died in custody.
Mr Moorhouse said: "If public confidence in the detention process, particularly amongst minority communities, is to be restored then this inexorable rise in such deaths must be eliminated." Molly Meacher, deputy chairman of the authority, added: "These figures are deeply, deeply concerning. We have a gross disproportionality of deaths in custody involving the ethnic minorities and this is something that forces have to concentrate on."
The report said the authority had a "particular concern" about deaths after a struggle or restraint. And it called for "refresher" courses on self-defence and restraint techniques. It also called for cameras to be installed in cells.
Of the 4,134 cases fully investigated in the past year, the authority recommended disciplinary charges in 333 cases - a rise of 41 per cent on 1997-98. One in three corruption allegations, one in five accusations of sexual assault and one in five allegations of failures in duty led to punishment. There were an additional 861 lesser punishments or "disciplinary actions".
Criminal charges were brought against 28 officers because of public complaints.