Safety action cuts deaths in custody

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THE NUMBER of people dying in police custody has fallen by a third following a safety campaign that includes fitting heart monitor machines and surveillance cameras in cells, a study has found.

The police have adapted a device used to monitor the breathing of newborn babies to keep an electronic check on vulnerable people placed in police cells. The initiative is among a series of measures that have helped cut the death rate in police custody, which reached a record total of 65 in England and Wales last year. Many of the victims died after hanging themselves or falling unconscious from drug or drink overdoses.

The new system, pioneered on a trial basis by Hertfordshire police, uses tiny microwave transmitters built into the cell walls and bed to monitor the movement of the inmate's chest. If the prisoner stops breathing for several seconds an alarm is set off in the police station alerting the duty officer.

The Home Office-backed Life Signs Monitoring System has been so successful that the Hertfordshire force is planning to fit the devices in all 11 cells at its police station in Hemel Hempstead. Other forces are also planning to fit the new devices.

Sergeant Mark Ewan, who thought up the system, said: "I got the idea from products that monitor a baby's breathing.

"It allows us to react in seconds, which can be the difference in saving someone's life," he said.

The monitor is just one initiative identified in an unpublished survey by the Police Complaints Authority, into how police forces are trying to reduce deaths in custody.

The study has discovered an apparent "sea change" in police thinking, which is already reaping rewards.

In the five months from April until the end of August this year there were 19 deaths in custody compared with 27 during the same period in 1998. At the current rate the total for the year is likely to be around 44 - a reduction of about a third on last year's figure.

The PCA's interim custody survey of 15 of the 43 forces in England and Wales found that all but two had fitted or intended to fit surveillance cameras in cells to monitor prisoners.

Among the other initiatives are the employment of full-time nurses to check new prisoners at custody centres in Kent. Merseyside and North Yorkshire police have psychiatric nurses on call.

Rip-resistant suits have also been developed to prevent prisoners using clothing to hang themselves.

Other forces have redesigned their cells. In Cambridgeshire a glass panel has been fitted to a special "at risk" cell so that staff can keep an eye on the prisoner. New-style door hatches designed to prevent inmates attaching ligatures to the bars in suicide attempts are being fitted in Northumbria and Hertfordshire

The way in which new prisoners are dealt with has also been overhauled. More rigorous questioning and better training for custody officers has helped identify more "at risk" cases. These are often people who may be mentally ill, have hidden injuries or are intoxicated with drink or drugs.

Police forces were criticised at a conference on deaths in custody organised by the PCA last October for not doing enough to reduce the number of fatalities.

"There's been a huge sea change in the attitude of the police," said Peter Moorhouse, chairman of the PCA. "In my 11 years at the authority I have never seen the police service react so positively."

A full report of the PCA custody survey is expected to be published next month.