Police given warning over deaths in custody

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The Independent Online

The Police Complaints Authority has written to every force in England and Wales because of rising concern over deaths in custody.

The Police Complaints Authority has written to every force in England and Wales because of rising concern over deaths in custody.

The organisation has warned forces that they are not fully recording details of prisoners who are vulnerable on the Police National Computer (PNC).

The letter followed the death of Richard Rojano, 21, who had threatened to kill himself on eight occasions, but was not classified as an "at risk" inmate.

Rojano was one of at least two prisoners whose deaths in custody have been linked to the failure of the police to record full details of vulnerable prisoners on their computer system.

The authority has called on all 43 chief constables to ensure that "at risk" markers are placed alongside the names of people arrested who have previously tried to harm themselves, are drug users, or suffer from mental health problems.

Rojano died from an accidental drugs overdose in police cells at Kettering police station in Northamptonshire in May 1998. Despite having told the police on eight previous arrests that he had attempted to take his life he was not flagged as a vulnerable person on the computer.

A jury returned a verdict of accidental death at an inquest in January this year.

Rojano, a known heroin user, was found dead in his cell during a routine check at 8.15am on 28 May. He died after he took a painkiller called co-proxamol that reacted with traces of the heroin substitute methadone in his blood. He had been detained overnight after reporting a burglary when it was found that he was wanted for failing to attend court.

An inquiry by the authority found that Northamptonshire police failed to record on the national computer that Rojano was a vulnerable person. All police forces have access to the computer system and placing markers against the names of inmates considered at risk allows custody officers to place the prisoners in special cells and monitor them more closely.

Wendy Towers, a member of the authority, has written to chief constables in England and Wales, expressing the authority's concerns about the issue.

"The investigation revealed that, in the two and a half years preceding his arrest, Mr Rojano had been arrested on 28 separate occasions," her letter says. "Of relevance is that on eight of these occasions Mr Rojano had answered 'yes' to the custody officer's questioning as to whether or not he had attempted to take his own life.

"At the time of this incident, there was no process in place to record and use this information in the future. Northamptonshire police has now rectified this failing.

"It is clearly wrong that warnings are not being added to the PNC. How would custody staff in other forces possibly know that detainees are at risk if entries are not being placed on the system?"

Caroline Mitchell, another authority member, said: "It seems absurd that police forces are not talking to each other about self harm."

In a second case, David Hodgson, 25, who had twice attempted to harm himself, died in custody in February 1999. He was found hanging in a toilet outside a detention room in a police station.

Officers from Greater Manchester Police had failed to record on the computer that Hodgson was a potential suicide risk despite twice finding him in a vehicle with a hosepipe attached to the exhaust. On the second occasion, the engine was running.

Hodgson was arrested in Lancashire for a drink offence but there was no marker on the computer suggesting he was a vulnerable detainee. He was placed in a detention room at Rawtenstall police station rather than a special cell. Ajury returned a verdict of accidental death at his inquest. The authority inquiry into the case is continuing.