‘Urgent improvements’ needed to West Mercia Police custody services

Custody and detention officers at West Mercia Police are failing to assure the safety of detainees, provide them with only a poor level of care and have limited oversight about the use of force, a report has found.

Apr 20, 2022
By Tony Thompson

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found that current arrangements at the force are not resulting in good custody services with several areas now requiring urgent attention.

Key areas of concern include:

  •  The force is not always assuring detainee safety – detainees under observation because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs are often taken off checks too quickly. Cell checks are often grouped together and recorded on each individual’s custody record, which is poor practice; and
  • Detainee care is poor– food and drink are not proactively offered or provided, and access to other aspects of care, such as washing, showers, exercise, reading materials and other activities is very limited.
  • The force does not have enough oversight over how custody is provided – there is no clear direction over how custody and detention officers carry out their roles and responsibilities;
  • The force does not always meet legal requirements, including providing detainees with information about their rights and entitlements, and the way in which reviews of detention are carried out; and
  • Governance and oversight of the use of force in custody are limited – information on what force is used, by which officers, or why it is necessary is often incomplete or inaccurate;

The inspectorates have made recommendations for West Mercia Police to address these concerns, while also highlighting an additional 11 areas for improvement.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams said: “Anyone detained in custody should be treated fairly and kept safe from harm.

“West Mercia Police has a clear governance structure for the safe and respectful provision of custody services. However, these arrangements are not resulting in good custody services.

“Our inspection identified some critical weaknesses in how custody is provided to make sure detainees are kept safe and treated and cared for well.

“Some of the recommendations from our last inspection in 2014 have not been achieved or have only partly been achieved, leaving some important areas of custody requiring urgent attention – including management oversight of custody, governance and oversight of the use of force, risk management and detainee care. These are now causes of concern.”

However, Ms Williams noted that the force has responded quickly to feedback provided during the inspection, taking action in several areas. “This gives us confidence that custody services, and outcomes for detainees, will now improve,” she said.

West Mercia Police said a number of improvements have already been made to its custody services following the inspection by HMICFRS.

It added: “The report highlights that the force responded quickly to feedback during the inspection with action taken in several areas, providing HMICFRS with confidence that custody services, and outcomes for detainees, will improve.”

Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper said: “It’s important that our custody provision is independently scrutinised and we welcome and accept the findings of HMICFRS’ inspection, and their acknowledgement that we were quick to respond to feedback.

“We know there are still improvements we need to make and have already put in place an urgent action plan to address the critical weaknesses identified by the report.

“We are committed to ensuring detainees are kept safe and cared for while in our custody; it is crucial we improve those areas of custody which are causes of concern.

“Since the inspection our custody managers have been working with HMICFRS to improve our internal audit and inspection process and we are currently developing an extensive training package that will be delivered to all of our custody staff in the coming months.

“Prior to the inspection, funding had been secured from our police and crime commissioner (PCC) to update our CCTV and custody infrastructure systems, such as fire alarm systems and cell intercoms.

“We welcome HMICFRS’ confidence that our custody services will improve and are committed to delivering significant improvements over the next 12 months.”

West Mercia’s PCC said appropriate care for detainees in police custody was non-negotiable and the HMICFRS report had raised “serious areas of concern”.

John Campion said: “West Mercia Police have a duty to those in their care, and the findings of this report are not good enough. These are issues that the force and I, are already aware of. I am reassured by the action that is already being taken.

“The report highlighted that a clear structure is in place and highlighted some good practice. The force must build on this, and their swift response gives me hope that they will deliver.

“My independent custody scheme provides important continued scrutiny and I will continue, to formally hold the force to account to ensure those being detained can trust that they will be safe and cared for appropriately.”

At North Wales Police, inspectors found that while its custody services had improved since their last inspection in 2014, further changes were needed to ensure the safety of detainees.

The inspectorates found that frontline officers understand vulnerability and take account of this when deciding to make an arrest. They also said the force only takes children into custody after exploring other alternatives.

However, HMICFRS and HMIP said they had four main causes of concern about North Wales Police’s custody services:

  • The force does not always meet legal requirements, including providing detainees with written copies of their rights and entitlements;
  • Governance and oversight of the use of force in custody is limited, and North Wales Police cannot show that when force is used it is necessary and proportionate;
  • The quality of recording on custody records is poor, with important information missing from some records; and
  • The force is not managing detainee risks well enough, including different officers carrying out checks, so there is often little continuity to assess changes in a detainee’s behaviour.

The inspectorates have therefore made recommendations for North Wales Police to address these concerns, while also highlighting an additional 17 areas for improvement.

Ms Williams said: “Anyone detained in custody should be treated fairly and kept safe from harm. North Wales Police has made many improvements since our last inspection in 2014.

“Custody staff are respectful, calm and confident when dealing with detainees. The force is committed to diverting children and vulnerable adults away from custody. It is also good at recording and reporting adverse incidents in detention and learning from them.

“However, we still have concerns in some areas, including explaining rights to detainees, the use of force, and record keeping. We will be working closely with North Wales Police and monitoring its progress against our new recommendations.”

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