Concerns raised over use of force by Cleveland Police officers to ‘punish’ locked-up suspects

Cleveland Police officers may have used force to punish suspects while they were in their custody, a critical new report has said

Detainees are being placed at a “significant risk of harm” by failings across the force’s custody suites according to joint report, from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) and HM Inspectorate of Prisons.

The review paints an often unpleasant picture of what those accused of crimes may face if they are locked up.

Detainees face the prospect of sub-par meals, while some aren’t even offered a pillow to sleep on.

Inspectors found some positives, including how the force deals with vulnerable prisoners and children, as well as the quality of healthcare for those in custody.

However three causes for concern have now been identified, along with 15 areas for improvement, by regulators who say Cleveland Police’s custody services need to improve.

“Anyone detained in custody should be treated fairly and kept safe from harm.

“Since we last inspected Cleveland Police’s custody services, the force has made some positive changes, including appointing a dedicated chief inspector for custody and putting a greater focus on improving outcomes for detainees,” said Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Andy Cooke.

“However, we still have significant concerns about the way some custody services are run, such as the management of risk and ensuring detainees are properly cared for and kept safe.

“We will be working closely with the force and monitoring its progress against our recommendations. The improvements the force has made so far give us more confidence that our concerns will be addressed.”

Force ‘appeared to be punitive’

The findings were made during an unannounced May inspection, with officials noting “concerns over how force had been used” in several cases they’d looked at.

They have now passed back half of the 14 cases for Cleveland Police to review, with inspectors noting: “Often the custody records contained little rationale for force being used.

“This made it difficult to assess whether the force used had been appropriate and proportionate.”

It said some CCTV recordings showed officers displaying “patience and reassurance” to de-escalate situations.

However, the report adds: “In others where force was used, the necessity for it was questionable, with little attempt to de-escalate the incident.

“We found some poor techniques being used. In some cases, the force used appeared to be punitive.”

It continues: “The force cannot assure itself, the Police and Crime Commissioner and the public that the use of force in relation to detention and custody is always safe and proportionate.

“Not all incidents of use of force in custody are recorded on the custody record and not all officers and staff involved in incidents are submitting use of force forms as required.”

Toilets ‘no longer hidden from view’

The 47 page report also found:

* Cell call bells, used to alert staff, were “routinely switched off and rarely responded to”.

* CCTV pixelation that hides some cell toilets had slipped – meaning “they are no longer hidden from view”.

* Detainees were offered meals without “sufficient sustenance”, with food and drink not always offered between meal times.

While the force has custody suites across Teesside, the bulk are in Middlesbrough where there’s space for 50 detainees.

And the inspection found that the majority of those locked up are treated with respect, with suites reasonably clean with safeguarding responsibilities “well understood”.

Growing confidence

However less than half of the 29 recommendations made since the last inspection, in 2014, have been implemented, with the report stating: “Until recently, there has not been enough focus on custody.

“Several of our previous recommendations have not been met and neither have recommendations to the force from the Independent Office for Police Conduct.”

Inspectors found a “cultural resistance” to change existed among some custody officers, hampering the progress.

However the report found that some recommendations this time had already been implemented, adding: “This gives us more confidence that improvements will now be made.”

It the latest watchdog report to find fault with the scandal-hit force, previously dubbed the worst in Britain.

A previous full inspection in 2019 rated it inadequate in all areas, as it was dubbed ‘rudderless and clueless’ and put into special measures.

Follow-up inspections have since found improvements being carried out.

Officials are currently searching for the seventh Chief Constable in the past decade, after Richard Lewis announced he was stepping down for family reasons.

Staff face threats

Addressing the report, Detective Chief Superintendent John Bent, Cleveland Police’s Head of Crime, said: “Custody is at the centre of policing and Cleveland has more than 15,000 detainees each year.

“Our priority is to deal with detainees safely and effectively and to safeguard our workforce in this challenging environment, where sadly they may face threats and assault.

“We welcome the inspection process as a tool for continuous improvement. We have completed, or are currently implementing, the recommendations.

“We are delighted good practice was also recognised, including how we deal with vulnerability, for example from mental health. It was identified that we offer good quality healthcare within custody.

“We are pleased it was recognised that we treat detainees with respect and we will continue to build on these strengths.”

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