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.”

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