Rethinking deaths after police contact

Dr David Baker

Between 2004 and 2015 a total of 1,539 people in England and Wales died after contact with the police (IPCC 2015). The term ‘death after police contact’ (DAPC) is used by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and includes categories such as shooting, apparent suicides in, or following police custody (within 48 hours of being released from custody), deaths in road traffic accidents, and deaths in police custody. Police officers are seldom subject to a criminal trial in cases of DAPC, and it is extremely rare for them to be prosecuted if they are. Yet the state is legally obliged under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to investigate cases of DAPC in an independent forum. The state should demonstrate a duty of care to citizens and ensure their right to life is proactively enabled. Each case of DAPC in England and Wales is typically investigated by two independent organisations (the IPCC and the coronial service) and police are held to account for their actions. This blog post is informed by research into documents produced by the coronial service and IPCC in sixty-eight cases of DAPC in the period 2004-2015. Narrative verdicts recorded by juries in the coronial system and IPCC independent investigation reports into correlate cases were analysed to assess trends and patterns in relation to how these deaths occurred and how they were investigated. The result is a monograph (2016) ‘Deaths after police contact: constructing accountability in the 21st century’. This post sets out some of the conventional knowledge about this issue, and adds some original findings from the research that suggest it might be helpful to rethink the issue of DAPC in England and Wales.

There is no official denial of the real and symbolic importance of cases of DAPC to society. The capacity of the state and society to hold police to account in these cases is seen as a touchstone for legitimate, transparent and consensual policing in England and Wales. Similarly, there is no official denial that deaths in state custody are significant because the state bears a unique responsibility for the welfare of citizens in their care, and a death in custody can often be viewed with suspicion by the public. Moreover, there is no official denial that a disproportionate number of citizens from marginalised groups in society die in these cases. If you are from a Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) group, have mental health issues, or are dependent on substances then there is a disproportionately large chance that you might die after police contact. None of these issues are disputed by the state. It has made numerous official pronouncements stating how important lesson learning is in reducing the number of deaths after police contact (see, for example Fulton 2008, House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2010, Joint Committee on Human Rights 2004). This much is unequivocal about deaths after police contact. A key question is: are lessons learned?

Much of the societal and media focus on the issue of DAPC identifies police use of force. It is relatively rare for police to shoot individuals dead in England and Wales. During the period 2004-2015 approximately 2 people per year were shot dead (IPCC 2016), compared to an estimated 1,000 per year in the United States (The Counted 2016). Having said that, approximately half of the 68 deaths examined in my research related to the use of physical force, principally restraint. So how did the other half die? A key finding in my research was that in approximately half of the cases, deaths occurred at least partly as a result of police inaction while in custody. Juries in coroners’ courts used benchmarking from official policies to establish that prescribed protocols were not followed regarding the care of detainees. A further finding was that more than half of the deaths examined occurred either as a result of the failings of healthcare agencies, or with healthcare agencies present at the time of death. The police are not only the ultimate emergency service for the public, but apparently also for other emergency services.

I believe it would be helpful to reimagine these deaths as healthcare crises. Many of them are preventable deaths if viewed from a healthcare perspective. Preventable if dealt with efficiently by healthcare services, or by multi-agency working between police and other emergency services. The term ‘death after police contact’ is disingenuous in that often these cases involve healthcare services in addition to police; and frequently there is no contact, instead detainees die at least partly due to inaction. Rethinking these deaths as failures in healthcare could help us rethink how we learn from them to prevent future deaths. A failure to learn lessons in the patterns of deaths after police contact has been repeatedly noted by official agencies and NGOs (see Hannan et al.  2010, Fulton 2008, Shaw and Coles 2007, House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2010, Joint Committee on Human Rights 2004, EHRC 2014).

The number of people who die after police contact is relatively stable in this country.  Public organisations and regulators have produced an increasing number of reports into this issue, but the number of deaths remains stubbornly unchanged, as does the disproportionality in those who die in such circumstances. We now know more about how people die in custody than we ever did, yet seem to be unable to translate this knowledge into practical applications that reduce the number of preventable deaths. The primary goal of a police officer is to preserve life, rather than necessarily enforce criminal justice (ACPO 2006). Reimagining the issue of DAPC in terms of a healthcare crisis might enable us to focus on the role of police as ‘peace officers’, to see the duty of care of detainees as being central to the police role, and to acknowledge the role of healthcare agencies in being part of a solution to this crisis.

Dr David Baker is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Coventry University. Email: d.baker@coventry.ac.uk  

One thought on “Rethinking deaths after police contact

  1. Thank you for the article which is an interesting read.
    It seems to me that if we want to reduce police-related deaths, we have to look for patterns where interventions might be made. We need to get an idea of the scale of each type of incident, and assess how reasonable intervention might be.
    For some reason, police-related deaths seem to be aggregated by the media across many years, presumably to be more newsworthy. The 1500 deaths over 10-11 years equates to about 150 per year.
    As stated in the blog, about 2 of the 150 relate to shootings, so we are unlikely to make much headway on the total here.
    I have some sketchy knowledge of the subject, only in relation to deaths in and after custody. There are about 15-20 per year, ie a little over 10% of the total. This needs to be put into the context of the 2 million people arrested annually, many of whom are drunk, drugged and /or have serious mental/physical health problems. Given additionally that the category includes people who have left custody, ie police have no further control over them, the fatality rate of 1 in 100,000 is remarkably low. It is hard to conclude, other than that the current rate is bumping along the statistical bottom, and that the lack of prosecutions of police officers reflects the effort and resources which forces put into this arena. I seem to recall, so am open to correction, that deaths of ethnic minorities are typically 1-2 per year, so are not obviously disproportionate.
    I’m not sure what the other 90% of deaths relate to, other than police-related traffic incidents. It is difficult to comment usefully without more detail. It is quite possible that most are primarily health, rather than police-related. However, a couple of factors need to be borne in mind.
    First, the legal duty of care on police and other public authorities is that which is reasonable, not absolute. Less control means less duty of care and rightly so. In cases such as many police vehicle pursuits, the primary responsibility lies with the person concerned and the police action was correct.
    Secondly, police, social services and health services deal in industrial volumes, with situations of apparent high risk. Yet the fact is that the vast majority of individuals concerned, whether those subject of potential suicide or the committing of domestic homicide – draw back from the act. It is notoriously difficult to identify real high risk from apparent high risk.
    All this may leave some arenas in which greater intervention could and should usefully take place. However, it seems to me that the devil is identifying the right detail. There is considerable risk of generating large amounts of activity from dwindling resources and little to show by way of results.

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