According to a recent report, hundreds of people have killed themselves shortly after being released from police custody in England & Wales over the past 7 years.
The Human Rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said that it had “unearthed serious gaps” in the care of people who had been arrested and taken into custody. Over the past 7 years, 400 people in England and Wales have killed themselves following release from Police custody. Almost all the deaths happened within 48 hours of release.
David Issac, Chairman of the Commission, said “When the state detains people, it also has a very high level of responsibility to ensure they are safely rehabilitated back into their communities, particularly those who may be vulnerable”.
The Home Office acknowledged that while the figures showed a slight fall in the last year, every death in or following police custody “represents a failure and has the potential to dramatically undermine the relationship between the police and the communities they serve”.
Much effort has been made in recent years to reduce deaths in Police custody but in my experience, little consideration is given to the welfare of individuals following their release from custody.
Many of those arrested will undoubtedly feel high levels of shame and social exclusion because of what they have been accused of, for example sex offenders. In my experience however, several will experience similar emotions simply because of the very fact of the arrest and their treatment by the arresting and/or detaining Police Officers. This is especially true for those who are innocent, of good character and who perhaps are not what the law terms “a person of customary phlegm” or normal fortitude, i.e. they have a history of anxiety and depressive symptoms and are therefore at risk of a further depressive episode in the course of their lifetime.
It is difficult for those of us who haven’t personally experienced it to comprehend the sense of utter dismay felt by an innocent person upon arrest and detention. You are brought into a custody suite through doors with special locking devices and presented to the Custody Sergeant. There, you are advised of the reasons for your arrest in very brief terms, stripped of your possessions, interrogated as regards your personal health and welfare and then led to a cell for an indeterminable length of time. The cell is a bare room with bars on the window, a wooden bench, and a lavatory possibly not maintained to the highest hygienic standard. There is a small grating in the door and you are obviously locked in, and very much alone, in a totally alien environment.
You’ve got no shoes on by this time and your belt has been taken away and so have all your possessions including your watch and phone – you no longer feel in control of yourself, you are under somebody else’s control and authority.
This is clearly an intensely stressful and depressing situation to find yourself in. Most people can cope with such an experience but for some, those without ‘customary phlegm’, their resolve may not be so robust.
I recently concluded a claim on behalf of an elderly gentleman of exemplary character from Brighton who I will call Brian. He was accused of assaulting another man some 7 weeks earlier. Police Officers attended his home address and invited him to attend the Police Station which he did the following day ‘for interview’. Upon arrival, he was formally arrested and held for several hours during which time he was interviewed. He was released on Police bail, and upon his return was again locked up for several hours, re-interviewed and finally charged.
The subsequent prosecution brought against him failed (it was discontinued shortly before trial).
I am satisfied that Brian was entirely innocent. Notwithstanding this and the fact that Brian was confident he would be acquitted at trial, Brian found the fact of arrest to be overwhelming and his life turned upside down.
Having taken lengthy instructions and intimated a claim against Sussex Police, I commissioned a report from a Psychiatrist to comment upon my client’s experience and impact on his life.
What follows are extracts from the Psychiatrists report;
PC Brown came from the back and arrested the Claimant. They took him through to the custody suite. There they ‘processed’ him, as they put it. Everything seemed to be numb. He felt that it could not be happening. It was surreal. He was going through the motions.
In the meantime, his solicitor had a meeting with PC Brown. His solicitor then spoke to the Claimant and told him what the accusation was. He was told that they were prepared to offer him a caution. The only further detail was dates and the detail of the allegation which was that he had ‘head-butted’ someone. They did not identify the victim.
Then they interviewed him. They talked about the area where the assault occurred. He admitted that he did frequent the area. In the latter part, he was shown two photographs of the injured party. He could not see any injuries and he did not recognise the person. PC Brown said that he matched the description (although subsequently they found out that he did not). He was then put in a cell. He was in and out of the cell during the night.
Then it was suggested that he should take part in an identification parade. In order to confirm his innocence, the solicitor suggested that he should participate. This involved having his photograph taken. It was as the Claimant was about to leave that he saw the details of the alleged assailant on a document in his solicitor’s hand and pointed out that the description did not match him.
On 25 August he was taken back to the police station and charged. On this occasion he was put in a cell for longer as his solicitor had not arrived. They laughed when they charged him. He did not think that it was very funny.
Initially everything seemed a bit of a blur. He was still going to work. His faith in the system was such that he believed that it would resolve itself. So up to December 2010 he continued to work. Then he realised that he was not coping and things were getting on top of him.
He then went downhill. All he could do was watch television. He was not doing any housework. His personal hygiene was being affected.
His sleep was dreadful. He would nod off during the day as he was so exhausted. He would sleep for only short periods and then wake churning it all over in his mind. His appetite was all over the place. He was referred to a dietician. His libido became non-existent. His concentration was dreadful. He could easily wander off. Sometimes he would forget what he was doing and go and do something else.
He is better but he still gets a physical feeling inside when the doorbell rings – his stomach twists. He thought that he had overcome the problem with police cars. When they were on holiday in Spain a police car pulled up and he found himself trembling, he felt a knot in his stomach and he thought that they were coming for him again.
His sleeping pattern is still not good. There are times when he falls asleep exhausted and then wakes in the middle of the night wide awake with his mind rushing over all sorts of things. At the weekends if he does not have work, he wakes at the normal time but he feels too tired. He still feels quite lethargic. It is now an effort to do anything. His libido is getting better but it is helped by tablets. He has not recovered his interests.
When he is asleep, he has occasions when things flash though his mind such as police cars or police officers or something to do with being enclosed in the cell and not being able to get out. The main thing is feeling trapped, enclosed and unable to get out. He has sometimes woken from such experiences with a start and quite clammy and sweaty.
Anything official, he does not trust. He cannot shower any more as he is having panic attacks. He has not flown anywhere as they shut the door on the passengers. He sleeps with the bedroom door open.
Whenever he sees a police car he thinks they are coming to get him again. He gets this awful feeling in his stomach. He feels that they want to do him harm and not help him.
It is almost every night that he has dreams about the incident as it is not behind him yet. He then referred to “the shutting of the cell door and the dank coldness, blank concrete walls”. He referred again to how seeing a police car or a police officer or police community support officer can trigger ‘it’. By ‘it’ he means that his stomach knots and he has a feeling like almost the opposite of goose bumps over the whole of his body and it feels terrible. This happens a couple of times a day. It can take half an hour or more to recover. It may involve walking in the opposite direction to the stimulus.
I asked if he had changed. He said that he had been avoiding social events, meetings and in particular anything confrontational in case people think that he is a bad person, “I automatically think that they may think I am a bad person.”
If someone disagrees, he thinks that he has done something wrong whereas previously he would stand his ground. He does not have the confidence that he had previously. His confidence is less than zero.
He is afraid that no one will believe him. He is held back from saying things that we know are correct. He would have an opinion previously but he does not have one now.
Previously he enjoyed his work. Now it is a chore.
3 months after the initial arrest, the Claimant attended his General Practitioner complaining of anxiety and panic attacks. He was having episodes of swearing and shallow breathing. When taking a shower he felt as though he was being smothered. He had palpitations. His sleep was disturbed by panic attacks. The general practitioner prescribed anti-depressants. (He continued to see his GP on a regular basis until he was referred to his local community mental health team).
Brian’s therapist subsequently reported as follows –
Before 2010, Brian saw himself as a principled man, who helped everyone and used to interact widely with other people. Since the trauma, he said this had altered his self-identity where he now sees himself as incompetent, weak and bad.
In a later session, the therapist reported that – I provided psychoeducation about the memory in PTSD, and attempted to normalise his experiences. He described himself as a law-abiding and principled man, who had a strong sense of right and wrong. The trauma has jeopardised his sense of identity and shattered his world, what his identity is – and the people he expected to keep him safe, had not done so.
At present validation is very important to Brian, he fears not being believed by others still and this had led him to imagine that people will accuse him or expect the worst of him.
Fortunately this was a case where, with the help of his partner, his GP and his local Community Health Team, Brian was able to get back on his feet. After 6 months of treatment, my client’s therapist referred to him as having improved immeasurably. However, it is a salutary insight into the kind of trauma which people experience when that cell door is closed upon them, and how many need time, help and the right support to escape from the feelings their imprisonment has burdened them with – long after the cell door is physically unlocked, many people remain mentally trapped and isolated within it and those whose cry for help is not heard or who lack the right support may indeed take extreme action to escape those feelings.
Despite rejecting his complaint, following my intervention, Sussex Police admitted liability for false imprisonment. This was a case in which there was simply no need to arrest and incarcerate Brian, as he had voluntarily attended for interview and therefore his arrest and detention was unlawful and his claim settled for £30,000 which reflected his period of unlawful incarceration, his psychiatric injury and lost earnings whilst incapacitated. Brian was in my opinion fortunate to receive the support that he did otherwise he too could have been one more number in that deeply sad statistic with which I opened this blog.
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