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Review of use of force cases in custody highlights ‘poor techniques’

Unannounced inspection of North Yorkshire custody sites raises governance issues and poor recording practices

Oversight of the use of force by custody staff in North Yorkshire Police is a cause for concern according to an HMICFRS inspection.

The force’s governance and oversight of the use of force in custody was described by the review as “not good enough.”

The inspectorate says analysis of custody records shows force is used more often in North Yorkshire custody suites than in other forces, "so it is important that North Yorkshire Police can clearly show why this is."

The inspection, which was an unannounced visit, found that although there is some scrutiny and quality assurance of incidents, the information that supports this scrutiny is inaccurate. “This means North Yorkshire Police can’t show that when force is used in custody it is necessary, justified and proportionate,” it adds.

HMICFRS reviewed 19 cases of use of force on CCTV. In some cases it found that incidents weren’t managed well, and custody officers didn’t always provide enough direction and oversight.

It added: “Restraint techniques weren’t always often deployed correctly. Not all techniques were used correctly, or successfully applied. We saw instances where poor control techniques escalated incidents, leading to more force being used and an increased risk of injury to the detainee.”

Handcuffs aren’t always removed quickly enough from compliant detainees it claimed.The reasons why handcuffs have been used aren’t recorded, and the time at which handcuffs are removed isn’t recorded it added. 

The force has three custody sites at York (24 cell facility) Harrogate (16 cells) and Scarborough (17 cells).

All three facilities manage an annual throughput of more than 11,000 detainees with staffing comprised of one chief inspector, two inspectors, 24 custody sergeants and 28 detention officers.

The quality of recording on custody records is often poor the inspection found. Important information is sometimes missing, including the reasons for decisions such as the removal of clothing and the reasons for strip searching. Sometimes the provision of food and drink isn’t recorded at all.

The recording of welfare checks often relies on either standard text entries or uses identical text to the previous entry. “This is poor practice and makes it difficult to assess any improvement or deterioration in a detainee’s condition,” the review warns.

The inspection also found that frontline officers don’t always feel they receive adequate levels of support when dealing with incidents involving people with mental ill health and deciding whether they need to be taken into custody.

Officers told the inspectorate  that the mental health professionals in the force control room gave good advice and assistance to help them decide what to do when dealing with a person with mental ill health. But officers also said that when these staff weren’t on duty it could be difficult for them to get advice.

The mental health professionals are only available from 10.30am to 11.00pm. When they aren’t on duty, officers ring the mental health crisis teams instead. They reported difficulties in getting through to speak with someone. This often leaves them trying to manage the risk and deciding to detain the person under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983.

Long wait times for ambulances to take section 136 detainees to a mental health suite are common,  the inspection found. Often there is then more waiting with the detainee at the mental health suite before a Mental Health Act assessment can take place.

Custody staff used section 136 to move detainees with suspected acute mental health problems from custody to a health-based place of safety on 15 occasions in the year before the inspection.

However there are only two beds at the health-based place of safety serving the whole county, which results in delays to detainees getting the support they need.

The standard of care custody staff offer to detainees was rated as very good. Detainees spoke positively about the care they received, and most were aware of the facilities and care available to them.

The inspectorate also found that the liaison and diversion team provides good support for detainees with mental ill health, and a wider range of help for vulnerable detainees who have housing, social, drug and/or alcohol problems.

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