Police taken to task over custody cells

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Police chiefs have been told they need to change the way they deal with suspects held in custody following an inspection of 14 police stations including those at Bedlington, Wallsend and North Shields.

Northumbria Police’s custody arrangements were judged adequate, but several problems were highlighted in a report by Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, and Dru Sharpling, an inspector for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.

All eight of the force’s 24-hour custody suites, including the 20 cells at Bedlington’s Schalksmuhle Road police station, were visited in July last year, along with six standby or part-time suites.

Officers were praised for good practice overall, but several areas for improvement were identified.

Risk assessments of detainees taken into custody were completed inconsistently, and booking-in arrangements allowed only limited privacy, for instance.

The report concludes: “Overall, police custody was adequate, but problems were evident in some important areas.

“Detainees were generally treated respectfully and their basic needs were provided for, but this was too often at the initiative of the detainee rather than custody staff.

“Conditions varied from good to poor, and the inconsistent application of risk assessment processes was a significant area of concern.

“We consider the routine use of handcuffing to be disproportionate, and more needs to be done to support those with mental health issues.

“We expect an action plan to be provided in due course.”

Superintendent Vince Stubbs said: “Custody suites are very busy, dynamic operational environments, and there were more than 72,000 detainees processed through them last year.

“We take our commitment to the welfare of all detainees very seriously and welcome the findings in the report, which highlights what we do well and areas where we can improve.

“A full review of our custody provision was ongoing at the time of the inspection, and steps have already been taken to improve our custody services, including the appointment of a custody inspector at each area command and an overall force custody manager.

“We continually look to improve the custody facilities we have.”

Bedlington police station was praised for several aspects of its handling of detainees.

“There was limited attention to diversity, although some very good work was being done at Bedlington, says the report.

It adds: “We saw some good examples of appropriate handling of juveniles at Bedlington.”

The Schalksmuhle Road station was also highlighted as being the only one inspected to offer privacy from CCTV cameras in its toilets.

It was criticised for failing to deal with graffiti adequately, however.

“The suites at Etal Lane in Newcastle and Bedlington contained a lot of graffiti, including swastikas, scratched on the walls and backs of cell doors. Much of this had been painted over but was still visible,” say the inspectors.