Home Secretary announces review of deaths in police custody

The Home Secretary has today announced an independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody.

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

If I may say so, Operation Black Vote is a powerful and inspirational example of what can be achieved when people get together to make a real difference. You have long campaigned on racial and social justice, and encouraged people to become more politically and socially involved. I think your work on policing is tremendously important – particularly on issues such as stop and search and diversity as you’ve referred to. It is also good to see many others here whose work is concerned with what I want to talk about today – the relationship between the public and the police.

The relationship between the public and the police

We meet today in Brixton, the location of some of the worst breakdowns in that relationship in recent history. The riots that took place here in 1981, 1985 and 1995 are stark reminders of the importance of trust between the police and the communities they serve – and the potentially devastating consequences if things go wrong.

Of course a lot has changed since then – both in society and in policing. But in my time as Home Secretary, I have encountered other examples which demonstrate the continuing need to strengthen the relationship between the public and the police.

The police work hard to deal with difficult incidents every day of the week. But we all know only too well the incidents where things have gone wrong and the police have responded with obstruction, neglect or cover-up… where there have been allegations of corruption and the falsification of evidence… and the damning perception, if not the reality, of the abuse of power.

But also the smaller, day to day examples, which individually may not attract headlines, but collectively and accumulatively have an insidious and corrosive effect. Examples where the police haven’t taken victims seriously or recorded crimes as they should have… concern about the use of police powers… and the ongoing need to improve the police response to vulnerable people.

There is a good reason why I am setting this out in this way today. It is not because I want to run down the police and focus on the actions of a few, or because I want to dredge up the past and reopen events which have been resolved. I have said many times that I believe the vast majority of the police go about their job with honesty and integrity – just as they did in 1980s and every other year - and I firmly believe that. I know that officers and staff are as appalled as I am by these incidents, and I know that they are as equally determined to repair the damage caused by issues today or in the past.

No. The reason I am setting this out is because there is an important principle at the heart of British policing – the principle of policing by consent. And it is a principle we must all fight for, work for and protect.

In 1829, when Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police, he declared that the police must maintain a relationship with the public “that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police.”

Those words state very clearly that in this country we believe in policing by consent and it’s a principle I know every officer, every chief constable, and every PCSO subscribes to and believes in.

It sits behind the solemn oath all constables swear “to well and truly serve the Queen in the office of constable, with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people.”

It runs through the new Code of Ethics introduced by the College of Policing last year, which sets out the principles and standards of behaviour expected of all police officers and staff. It makes clear that our model of policing depends upon the co-operation and agreement of the people. And as such it requires the utmost transparency, integrity and accountability.

And it is a principle that ensures our police have never, and will never, routinely carry guns or hide behind military style equipment.

Because that is not what policing by consent means.

It means, at its heart, a contract: a contract in which the police have the responsibility to treat the public with respect, and the public have a responsibility to support the police and respect the work they do to keep us safe.

And when things go wrong, and the police act in a way that does not put service to the public first and foremost, that unwritten contract is damaged and the police’s ability to maintain law and order is undermined.

Protecting the relationship with the public

Now since I became Home Secretary in 2010, I have delivered a radical programme of reform that has changed policing significantly. I have done so not to dismantle what we have, but to preserve and protect what is best about British policing, and to ensure that breakdowns in the relationship between the public and the police – like that seen in Brixton thirty years ago – are never repeated again.

So in the last Parliament, we strengthened the relationship between police forces and the communities they serve by devolving power and transforming local accountability. We shifted power and control away from central government to local police forces. And we replaced the bureaucratic accountability of police authorities with the democratic accountability of Police and Crime Commissioners, who are themselves held to account in the most powerful way possible, through the ballot box.

Stronger local accountability was in turn reinforced by much greater transparency to the taxpayers and citizens that police forces serve. Information on police performance and efficiency is now more independent, robust and regularly published under Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary’s annual PEEL inspection programme. Crime statistics too are more independent and accurate since we transferred responsibility to the Office for National Statistics. And local crime statistics are available for all to see on our crime maps website, police.uk.

I established the College of Policing as a proper professional body for policing to ensure the public are treated with high standards of respect and professionalism. Now, when officers fall short of those standards they can expect disciplinary hearings to be held in public and – from next year – overseen by a legally-qualified chairman. If they are dismissed at the end of that process, their name will be held on a struck off register so they cannot rejoin another force. Where local investigation or resolution is not possible, we have beefed up the Independent Police Complaints Commission so that it can take on all serious and sensitive cases. And where corruption is involved officers will be prosecuted for a specific offence of police corruption for the first time.

And through schemes such as Direct Entry and Police Now which Simon referred to we are starting to open up the closed shop of policing to people with fresh talent and new skills and from different backgrounds and ethnicities. The success of these schemes will not just be greater diversity and the expertise – but police forces that are more reflective of the communities they serve, and with a much stronger relationship as a result.

It is important too that we improve the police response to vulnerable people. So I have introduced measures to ensure respect and professionalism is matched with care and compassion, and to stop the police having to pick up the pieces when other services fail. Our street triage pilots, liaison and diversion, and the alternative health-based place of safety we piloted successfully in Sussex, are all making a difference. And at the Police Federation Conference in May, I announced that the government will provide £15 million of new funding to help to ensure that no person with mental health problems – who has committed no crime – is detained in a police cell due to the lack of a health-based alternative. Because as I have said before, the right place for a person suffering a mental health crisis is a bed, not a police cell. And the right people to look after them are medically trained professionals, not police officers.

I have also been clear that sensitive powers available to the police must be properly applied and effectively used. So I have reformed the use of Stop and Search, and taken steps to ensure much greater transparency and accountability in the use of other powers like restraint and Taser. Because properly applied, these powers are legitimate and sometimes necessary. But when they are misapplied – and innocent people are stopped and searched for no good reason, or Tasered inappropriately – it is not only a dreadful waste of police time, but does great damage to public confidence in the police.

And last week I informed Parliament of my decision not to authorise water cannon for use by the police in England and Wales. As I said in my statement, such a decision is a serious one, which has the potential to change the face of British policing. The significant scientific, medical and operational evidence did not give me the high degree of confidence I needed to authorise less lethal weaponry. But I was also acutely conscious of the potential impact of water cannon on perceptions of police legitimacy and the very principle of policing by consent.

We will finish the job of police reform

So thanks to the reforms we have put in place, a proper framework of institutions and processes now exists to safeguard the relationship between the public and the police. And the results are encouraging.

Crime has not just fallen by more than a quarter since 2010, according to the Independent Crime Survey for England and Wales – but the public can have confidence in the figures.

Confidence in the police is as high as ever and stands at 76% of adults.

Fewer people detained under the Mental Health Act are now being placed in police cells when they really need a health-based place of safety. Last year, such use of police cells fell by a third, and in some forces they were not used at all.

And there are signs that stop and search is becoming more targeted and effective. The latest figures for England and Wales show that the number of stop and searches has come down by 12% from the previous year and by 31% since 2009/10. The stop to arrest ratio has increased too from 9% in 2009/10 to 12% in 2013/14.

So police reform is working. But the need for reform does not stop here, and the job is not yet finished. In this Parliament, reform must be more urgent, more radical and more comprehensive if we are to meet the challenges before us.

Later this year we will introduce a new Policing and Criminal Justice Bill which will allow us to further improve the relationship between the public and the police.

We will overhaul the police complaints and disciplinary systems to improve transparency, and ensure cases are dealt with quickly and effectively, not just for the benefit of the public but also for officers who have done nothing wrong. We will strengthen the role of PCCs in the complaints system to increase accountability to the public and streamline the way it works to make it easier to understand. And where appropriate, we will help victims receive what they often want but rarely ever hear, a simple apology, rather than both sides becoming caught up in unnecessary and lengthy processes.

We will also reform the use of pre-charge bail to prevent the injustice of people spending months – or even years – on bail only for no charges to be brought. Where pre-charge bail is set, we will place an initial limit of 28 days, with an extension in complex cases of up to three months to be authorised by a senior officer, or for over three months signed off by the courts.

We will include provisions to cut the use of police cells for Section 135 and 136 detentions, reduce the current maximum period of detention for the purposes of medical assessment, and look beyond the current health provision to enable more places, other than police cells, to be designated as places of safety.

We will enshrine in legislation a revised Core Purpose for the Police Federation of England and Wales, to make clear that the Federation serves not just its members, but the public as well. And we will make the Federation subject to the Freedom of Information Act to increase transparency.

At the same time, we will go further and faster with schemes such as direct entry and Police Now to open up policing to candidates with new skills and backgrounds. Because public trust requires greater openness and diversity, as well as professionalism and respect.

And as I have said before, if stop and search does not become more targeted, and stop to arrest ratios do not improve, we will legislate.

Repairing the transgressions of the past

So we have taken action to protect the principle of policing by consent, and our Police and Criminal Justice Bill will help preserve it for the future.

But if we are to restore trust and re-establish that principle for whom it has lost meaning, we must also face up to the transgressions of the past, and seek to put them right.

That is why I have always acted to address miscarriages of justice when they have emerged or where alleged behaviour has threatened to damage the confidence of the public and victims. In 2012, I commissioned Mark Ellison to review allegations of corruption surrounding the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Following the conclusion of that review, work is ongoing to investigate criminal wrongdoing and uncover further miscarriages of justice if they exist. In addition, I have established a statutory inquiry into undercover policing which will be led by Lord Justice Pitchford and whose terms of reference I published only last week.

In 2013, I set up the Daniel Morgan Panel to examine the serious allegations of police corruption surrounding the investigations into the murder of Daniel Morgan. And in February this year, I announced an independent, QC-led investigation into the unresolved questions surrounding the wrongful imprisonment of five men for the murder of Lynette White nearly 25 years ago.

Alongside this work – when faced with tough, stubborn and systemic problems – I have not held back from asking difficult questions, and I have been determined to take these issues on. In the Modern Slavery Act, the UK now has powerful legislation to fight a crime which is an affront to our values and a scourge on our society. Following HMIC’s review of the police response to domestic abuse last year, every police force has published an action plan showing how they will improve their response. And we are at a watershed moment as we face up to the scale and magnitude of child sexual abuse and exploitation – which is why I have designated child sexual abuse a national threat, supported Operation Hydrant, and established the Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry to get to the truth of what has been going on.

Not so long ago, these crimes may have been misrecorded and their victims ignored. Now no one – from any arm of the state or any police force – can be in any doubt of the need for concerns to be listened to, believed and recorded in the right way.

Deaths and serious incidents in custody

These measures will help us address some of the serious issues of the past, and those that continue in the present.

But we must do more. And one area where I believe more can be done is police custody.

Police custody is the place where a number of dynamics meet. It is the place where dangerous and difficult criminals are rightly locked-up, where officers and staff regularly face violent, threatening and abusive behaviour, and where the police use some of their most sensitive and coercive powers.

But it is also a place where all too often vulnerable people, often those with mental health problems, are taken because there is no other place to go.

Vulnerable people like Sean Rigg who died not far from here in Brixton Police Station.

There is an ongoing investigation into that case, so I cannot go into it in detail. But I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sean’s family, and the family of Olaseni Lewis, for sharing with me their experiences in the last few months.

Thankfully, deaths and serious incidents in custody are rare.

No one – least of all police officers – wants such incidents to happen, and I know everyone involved takes steps to avoid them. But when such incidents do occur, every single one represents a failure – and has the potential to undermine dramatically the relationship between the public and the police.

This morning the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) published their annual statistics on deaths in police custody, showing that in 2014/15, there were 17 deaths in or following police custody, a rise from 11 for the previous year – and the highest figure for five years. The number of apparent suicides following police custody was 69, and there were 41 other deaths following police contact that were subject to an IPCC independent investigation.

Sadly, as these figures show, deaths and serious incidents in custody may be rare, but they do happen. And when they do, for the families involved who have lost loved ones, all too often the system doesn’t work the way you would expect.

In my time as Home Secretary, I have been struck by the pain and suffering of families still looking for answers, who have encountered not compassion and redress from the authorities, but what they feel as evasiveness and obstruction. I have also heard at first hand the frustration of police officers and staff, whose mission it is to help people but whose training and procedures can end up causing bureaucracy and delay. And all this at a time when families are feeling vulnerable and confused and a police force is trying to come to terms with what has happened, whether it could have been avoided, and what needs to be done to prevent it happening again.

So today I am announcing a major independent review of deaths and serious incidents in custody.

This review will not reopen and reinvestigate past cases and it will not interfere with ongoing inquests, investigations or IPCC reviews which have yet to be completed. Instead it will have two principal aims.

First, to examine the procedures and processes surrounding deaths and serious incidents in police custody. This will include the lead up to such incidents, the immediate aftermath, and all steps through to the conclusion of official investigations. It will need to consider the availability and effectiveness of mental healthcare facilities, the use of restraint, the training of officers, and the subsequent investigation, inquest and judicial process.

Second, to identify areas for improvement and develop recommendations to ensure appropriate, humane institutional treatment when such incidents occur. In particular, the review will consider the safety and welfare of all those in the police custody environment, including detainees and police officers and staff, and whether more can be done to reduce the risk of serious incidents occurring.

The review will work closely with the College of Policing – who will shortly publish revised authorised professional practice on detention and custody – and it will draw on the previous work of the IPCC, including its review of cases involving a death.

And at its heart will be the experience of the families of those who have died in custody and the voices of victims of other serious incidents. To that end, I will be asking INQUEST, which has long campaigned on these issues, to consider a formal role in the review and to provide a liaison function with affected families and victims.

And the chairman I will appoint will be someone with the ability to work closely with victims, families and the police alike, and with a proven track record of being willing to ask difficult questions.


This review will build on the work we have already started, including the progress I have already mentioned today to reduce the use of police cells for those with mental health problems, to bring greater transparency to the police use of sensitive powers, and the inspection of vulnerable people in custody published by HMIC earlier this year.

These are all important steps that will help us build trust and confidence between the public and the police, and so support the principle of policing by consent.

I want to end by recalling the contract which I said at the beginning of my speech sits at the heart of that principle.

The first part of that contract I have talked about at length today – the need for the police to treat the public with respect. But as that contract makes clear, there is another side to that bargain. And we should never forget the extraordinary risks the police run day in and day out to keep us safe.

Or that we ask them to face distressing and tragic scenes and deal with dangerous people and situations – so that we don’t have to.

As the figures we published last week suggest, there were an estimated 23,000 assaults on police officers in the last year – an average of more than 60 assaults every single day.

So just as it is important that the police treat the public with respect, so too the public has a responsibility to respect the work of the police. To recognise that they have a difficult job to do, and to support them in that. And only then, when both sides of that contract are met, can we realise completely the idea that the police are the public and that the public are the police.

Published 23 July 2015