Inspectors have criticised ‘insufficient’ staffing levels at police custody suites in Kettering and Northampton.
An inspection, the first in almost seven years, found the force treated people respectfully in clean custody suites and was effective in keeping many children and vulnerable adults out of detention.
However, their findings over the two custody suites highlighted areas of concern in a report published today (Thursday).
These included insufficient staffing levels on some shifts to ensure safe detention.
In the suite at Weekley Woods, near Kettering, this meant slow responses to cell call bells and observations of detainees were not always conducted at the required frequency.
Inspectors did however, note that in practice many custody staff were patient, calm and reassuring when dealing with challenging detainees, and that force was generally only deployed as a last resort following efforts to de-escalate situations.
In several areas, the force did not comply with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), covering the detention, treatment and questioning of suspects, and inspectors said the force should improve some shortcomings urgently.
These included the practice of rousing detainees through the cell door hatch, rather than entering the cell as required under PACE.
Police and crime commissioner Stephen Mold said he will be announcing more custody investment later this month.
He said: “The welfare of people detained in custody by Northamptonshire Police is of paramount importance, which is why we have invested in new facilities in the north of the county at the Weekley Woods Justice Centre that matches the provision at the Criminal Justice Centre in Northampton.
“Later this month, I will be announcing further investment in the welfare of people in custody that will free up more police officer time for other duties.
“I also have a team of independent custody visitors who, as volunteers, visit detained people in both custody blocks to check on their welfare and the conditions in which they are being kept.
“Northamptonshire Police have a legal responsibility for every detained person, and I take those responsibilities very seriously.
“I welcome the publication of this report today and will be discussing its findings in detail at a meeting with the chief constable early next week.”
Chief constable at Northants Police Simon Edens said: “We welcome the report by HMICFRS and HMI Prisons and we are pleased that inspectors have recognised the efforts of our officers and staff to deliver a safe and effective custody provision in Northamptonshire.
“We acknowledge there are some areas for improvement and work is underway to address those areas highlighted in the report.
“We are pleased the inspection found that staff made good efforts to keep vulnerable people, especially children, out of custody and we welcome the positive findings in relation to our work with partner agencies, and in particular, that the effectiveness of our partnership with mental health services was acknowledged.
“We recognise the need to continue to work with partners to ensure that appropriate alternative accommodation is provided for children that have been remanded into custody.
“Inspectors found our custody staff to be ‘patient, calm and reassuring’, treating people with respect, and noted the high standard of our facilities.
“The police and crime commissioner has made considerable investment in the force’s custody provision in recent years, most recently opening a new, dedicated custody suite in Kettering to support policing in the north of the county.
“We welcome the inspectors’ findings in relation to these facilities, which they found to be ‘clean and in a good state of repair’, offering ‘very good standard and environment for detainees’.”
Inspectors were also concerned about the use of force.
The report said: “The governance and oversight of the use of force in custody were inadequate, data were unreliable, and Northamptonshire Police did not record all instances where force was used in its custody suites.
“Not all uses of force were proportionate to the risk or threat posed.”
Mr Edens added they are revising their practices around the recording of force.
He said: “We note the inspectors’ concerns around use of force and we are revising our practices around the recording of this to ensure full oversight and accuracy of data.
“We have taken immediate action to advise officers and staff in relation to the requirements of PACE and this is subject to ongoing monitoring.
“The governance of custody provision within the county is provided through collaboration arrangements with other regional east midlands forces and, as part of the wider chief officer team for Northamptonshire Police, assistant chief constable Julia Debenham has direct functional responsibility for custody provision in Northamptonshire.
“The force is satisfied that these arrangements, underpinned by robust auditing and a comprehensive training regime, provide effective scrutiny of the custody service within the county.”
The two suites, with a total of 62 cells, were inspected in an unannounced visit in January by a joint team from HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS).
Northamptonshire’s custody is run in a collaboration with three other forces – Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire.
While finding this high-level governance structure to be appropriate, inspectors recommended that Northamptonshire should ensure more direct scrutiny by its own senior officers of its own custody suites.
Inspectors noted that the Northamptonshire force was clearly focused on the diversion of vulnerable people from custody and that there was some positive work with partners to achieve this.
They added there had been good progress in work with mental health services to divert people with mental ill health from custody.
Frontline officers were effective in finding ways to avoid taking children into custody and those who were detained were well cared for.
The force had policies to move children charged and refused bail from custody to alternative accommodation.
However, in a finding echoing those in inspections of other forces, inspectors noted there was “little progress” in achieving this aim in Northamptonshire.
Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, and Wendy Williams, HM Inspector of Constabulary, said: “Custody staff treated detainees respectfully.
“They recognised, and in the main, met individual and diverse needs.
“To aid improvement we have identified a number of key areas of concern and areas for improvement.
“While the regional arrangements provided an appropriate governance structure for custody services in Northamptonshire Police, there was insufficient direct oversight and scrutiny at the force’s senior officer level.”