Police's use of prison cells to hold the vulnerable is unacceptable, says peer


The man leading an independent inquiry into how the Metropolitan Police deals with mental health incidents has said it is "unacceptable" for officers to use police cells as holding facilities.

Lord Victor Adebowale has been asked to investigate how Britain’s largest police force deals with complicated mental health cases following a spate of deaths in their custody. Campaigners have long expressed concerns that people suffering mental health breakdowns are acutely vulnerable if they are placed in police custody and that a disproportionate number of people who have died in such circumstances have been young black men. Earlier this summer an inquest jury ruled that police had used “unsuitable force” to restrain Sean Riggs, a mentally ill musician from South London who later died in a police cell.

In his first newspaper interview  since taking over the commission of inquiry last month, Lord Adebowale said he is cautious about coming to any premature conclusions but admitted there were clearly already areas where professionals knew police practice could be improved.

“The cells being used as places of safety is unacceptable,” he told The Independent. “The police are perceived to be in a difficult position but frankly that’s not my concern. My job is to ensure that the police response is improved.”

The life peer, who has significant experience in mental health issues and previously led an inquiry into the police’s use of stop and search powers, has insisted that his report will not shy away from criticising the police if they are found to be in the wrong.

“I haven’t approached this with deep sympathy for the police, or any other emergency service for that matter,” he said. “I have approached this as a tax payer who expects when they dial 999 to get an excellent response. I’m not going to be blaming this on the recession, put it that way.”

Metropolitan Police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe unveiled the inquiry in the wake of the damning inquest into Sean Riggs’ death but it was immediately criticised by campaigners as a “cosmetic exercise.”

Adebowale said he was disappointed by initial reaction to the commission because it prejudged what the researchers would find. He has insisted that both the report and its recommendations will be made public whilst the Met Police commissioner has promised to publicly explain any recommendations that his force declines to implement.

“It was a bit sad to read before I’d even called the first meeting that this was a whitewash,” he explained. “You kind of expect that but it’s like why don’t you pick up the phone and talk to me?”

He added: “I will produce recommendations that are actionable. I’m not interested in doing a piece of work that’s measured by its weight. I can’t compel the police but in making the report public and in making the recommendations public and in getting the commissioner to agree to explain his thinking I’ve gone as far as a member of the public can do.”

Asked whether he had any fears of his report being ignored by the police he replied: “I wouldn’t have said yes if I was intending to produce a report that just sits on the shelf of the commissioner’s office. I will be furious actually if that occurs because I hate wasting time. I do not think that’s going to be the case though, not least because I’d be telling people if it was.”

While groups like Inquest and Black Mental Health UK are not on the commission panel they will be invited to give evidence. Those who have been picked to pour through the thousands of police documents, Adebowale says, are specialists in crime, mental health or both.

Experts on the panel include Paul Farmer, head of the mental health charity Mind, Patrick Vernon, a specialist mental health within black and minority communities and Simon Cole, the chief constable of Leicestershire Constabulary.

Because a disproportionate number of deaths in custody victims within the Met Police have been young black men, campaigners have long argued that some sort of institutional racism must play a part in their response to mental health incidences.

Lord Adebowale, who is himself the son of Nigerian immigrants, said he recognised that there were concerns over race but insisted that his commission was there to look at all the victims over the last five years, regardless of race or creed.

“There is some evidence – and I say some evidence because it’s important I don’t start this piece of work with the conclusions already in my head – both anecdotal and statistical that would indicate black people are disproportionately affected by police responses to mental health incidences,” he said. “Of course the shocking death of Sean Riggs brings the police’s relationship with the Afro-Caribbean community across a whole range of areas into sharp focus. But that is not my inquiry’s purpose.”

He added: “If the response of the police to incidences involving mental health is in anyway tainted by prejudicial views of race we will find out and believe me I will make it very clear. In my stop and search inquiry I did not hesitate in making it clear the disproportional impact of stop and search on young black men.”

Nonetheless he added that it was important people understand how much the police are relied upon to deal with the immediate aftermath of serious mental health incidences. Over the next few weeks he will accompany street constables as they make their rounds.

“I think it’s important to understand what it’s like from their point of view,” he said. “The emergency services are the people who run in when everyone else is running out. I do start from a position of general respect for what they do. But it’s not blind and I won’t hesitate to critique them where I think they’re getting it wrong.”

Suggested Topics
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits