Alarm at private police operating beyond the law

Outsourced officers beyond reach of watchdog – even after deaths. MPs to investigate legal loophole in private police contracts

Hundreds of privately contracted police officers are working for forces across the country despite being unaccountable to the watchdog responsible for investigating deaths in custody, public complaints and allegations of wrongdoing, an investigation by The Independent has found.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has no automatic power to discipline privately contracted staff even if individual failures or misconduct contribute to the death or serious injury of a detainee.

The Government has failed to close this regulatory loophole despite warnings dating back several years. The IPCC has investigated a number of cases in which privately contracted staff were found to be working alongside police officers when a detainee suffered serious harm or death. Chief constables can currently choose to designate private custody and transport officers as working within the watchdog's jurisdiction, but this does not happen consistently, according to the IPCC.

MPs last night condemned the Government for failing to extend the IPCC's statutory powers despite the increased outsourcing of traditional police roles to private firms including Reliance Security and G4S. The use of privately contracted officers is rapidly expanding into areas such as call handling and ID parades as police forces grapple with budget cuts. South Wales, Lancashire and Cleveland are among those already outsourcing frontline police jobs.

The Independent has established that G4S has more than 300 staff working in 30 custody suites in three police forces, while Reliance Security employs 690 staff across 13 forces. A number of forces also buy in temporary extra manpower to assist in dealing with serious crimes such as murder investigations, manhunts and major protests through G4S Policing Solutions' database – which has 17,000 former police officers and support staff on its books.

Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, confirmed last night that the loophole would be investigated in the committee's forthcoming inquiry into the IPCC. "With 16,000 police officers due to be axed over the next four years, the use of private contractors to undertake the work of detectives, control-room call handlers and custody officers is set to increase," he said. "I will be writing to the Home Secretary to ask why no action has been taken to close this gap in jurisdiction... We must ensure those who undertake these crucial positions are accountable to the public they serve."

The issues were first highlighted in the case of Gary Reynolds, 43, who was found in a coma in his cell more than seven hours after being restrained and arrested in Brighton in March 2008.

In May 2009, the IPCC found that the "combined actions and inactions of custody sergeants and privately contracted staff in the custody centre contributed to a systematic failure to adequately look after the man whilst he was in their care".

Three police officers were given "words of advice", but the custody sergeant was allowed to retire and so escaped any disciplinary proceedings. He now issues firearms licences in a civilian post with Sussex Police. The IPCC could not enforce disciplinary measures on the Reliance custody staff.

The IPCC proposed "legislative changes" in February 2011 to "extend IPCC jurisdiction to include contracted staff". A Home Office spokesman said last night it was "considering what types of contracted-out staff the police complaints system should apply to".

Tom Brake, co-chairman of the Liberal Democrat backbench Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities Committee, said the increase in publicly funded private contracts should not be an "excuse for a lack of accountability". "As government contracts move to the private sector we need to ensure that private companies are subject to the same scrutiny as the public sector ,which includes being subject to the IPCC and Freedom of Information," he said.

Following Mr Reynolds's case, the IPCC also recommended changes to the Home Office police code which would require custody staff to carry out regular checks on anyone suspected of drinking even a small amount of alcohol. Instead, a significantly revised version of the safer detention guidance will be made available to forces next month and formally published next spring – three years after the IPCC report.

The National Policing Improvement Agency, which undertook the review of detention guidance, said: "We have [also] recently completely reviewed and revised the police custody officer training and first-aid training. We have not made the training available to the private sector as there has been no request for this to date. We would make it available to them if they approached us."

Both Reliance and G4S said their training arrangements were approved by individual police forces. G4S said it would welcome the introduction of tighter regulation, a voluntary code of conduct and minimum standards: "We fully co-operate with IPCC investigations and work with the relevant police authorities to ensure any recommendations are applied as appropriate."

Reliance said: "Whenever there are investigations conducted by the IPCC or any other incidents occur within custody, Reliance works very closely with the relevant police force to ensure that appropriate action is taken by all staff with regards to the lessons learnt."

Case Study: Marathon runner now struggles just to get up

Gary Reynolds, 43, a painter and decorator who also ran marathons, was restrained and arrested for being drunk and disorderly in Brighton city centre in March 2008 after leaving a party at a pub. The arresting Sussex Police officers later reported hearing a "thud or crack" as if his head hit the ground, but instead of taking him to hospital, they performed only a cursory check for blood or other obvious injuries.

He was taken to a custody centre outsourced to Reliance Security, where he was left in a cell to sleep off the alcohol overnight; none of the officers mentioned his possible head injury to the custody sergeant. By the time someone finally tried to rouse him, nearly eight hours after he was placed in the cell, he had slipped into a coma having suffered a brain haemorrhage and fractured skull. The untreated head injury left him paralysed on his left side, cognitively impaired and in need of constant care.

In 2009, the IPCC found "a collective lack of appreciation of the content and importance of following Sussex Police Policy and Safer Detention Guidance, in particular among Reliance staff and custody officers".

His brother Graeme said their whole family had been "tortured" by the events of that night. "All the agencies involved had the opportunity to make changes. But they haven't; they have put money first again. It would make us all feel better without a shadow of a doubt if we knew lessons had been learnt and that this could never happen again," he told The Independent.

Gary is still struggling to come to terms with his injuries and finds getting up each day "more difficult than running three marathons". He is currently in a rehabilitation unit.

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