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29 Oct 2018

Police custody risk assessments should be revised to better meet the needs of vulnerable detainees

Photo shows a person with hands behind their back in cuffs

Risk assessments for vulnerable detainees in police custody are open to too much interpretation and should be revised, according to a new study.

Researchers from Loughborough University, including the SBE's Professor Louise Cooke (member of the Centre for Information Management), have been working with forces from around the UK to establish whether the current risk assessment process is efficient and effective, and if not, find ways to make improvements.

Currently, all detainees undergo a risk assessment taking aspects of their physical and mental wellbeing into account to try and anticipate whether they are at risk of harm while in custody.

However, PhD student Melanie-Jane Stoneman found that police forces across England and Wales did not follow the national guidance questions, set out by the College of Policing in 2017, and had their own wide-ranging interpretations.

Differences included adding questions about whether individuals had used drugs or alcohol prior to being arrested.

Melanie-Jane said:

“The omission of questions about alcohol and drugs from the standard guidance was a surprise, as intoxication and withdrawal have been found to be risk factors linked to deaths in custody.

“It makes sense then, that officers would choose to include them when trying to determine whether a detainee might be a danger to themselves.”

It is estimated that around a million people are booked and detained in police custody each year.

Deaths in police custody have fallen over the last 11 years from 27 in 2006/07 to 23 in 2017/18, as reported by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

However, there are also an unknown number of ‘near-misses’ or ‘adverse incidents’, although a study carried out by the IPCC estimated that there are around 1,000 near-miss incidents a year across England and Wales.

“This figure may under-estimate the situation though as it is based on retrospectively collated data from forensic medical examiners.

“A study analysing recorded incidents of self-harm from custody records found that in one force there were 168 recorded incidents out of 48,000 arrests.

“Therefore, although incidents of self-harm are not entirely synonymous with near-miss incidents, it does suggest that if there were a million detainees a year, the figure of near-misses would be nearer 3,500 than 1,000.” – from the paper

The results of the study, Variation in detainee risk assessment within police custody across England and Wales, have been published in the journal Policing and Society.

All of the information was gathered using reports from inspection visits, freedom of information data and by first-hand observations of the assessments.

Melanie-Jane said:

“Overall, to establish if the current custody process was efficient and effective, the first step was to identify what the current process is and whether it is being followed – which it is, but to varying degrees across the country.

“The paper is based on publicly available information – through custody suite inspection reports produced by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, and freedom of information requests sent to all forces.

“This information was then compared to the national guidance on the risk assessment process provided by the College of Policing, and also against other forces.

“We found that information recorded as part of the risk assessment process varied between forces and differed from the national guidance.

“The next step in the project is to look at how custody officers assess and mitigate risk through observations in custody suites and interviews with custody officers.”

Professor Louise Cooke co-supervises Melanie-Jane with Professor Lisa Jackson and Dr Sarah Dunnett in the School of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering. 

Professor Cooke commented that the research contributes to SBE's expertise in the domain of Decision Sciences and the Centre for Information Management's focus on working with policing organisations to enhance organisational effectiveness. 

Risk assessment questions from APP guidance (College of Policing 2017)

Main questions

  • How are you feeling in yourself now?
  • Do you have any illness or injury?
  • Are you experiencing any mental ill health or depression?
  • Would you like to speak to the doctor/nurse/paramedic?
  • Have you seen a doctor or been to a hospital for this illness or injury?
  • Are you taking or supposed to be taking any tablets or medication?
  • Are you in contact with any medical or support service?
  • Do you have a contact card that tells you who to contact in a crisis?
  • Have you ever tried to harm yourself?

Supplementary questions

  • What is the name of your GP and GP’s surgery?
  • Do you have a family member who is aware of your health problem?
  • Is there anything I can do to help?