DEATHS in police custody reached their highest level for five years last year, with 17 fatalities in or following detention.
The figures, released by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) yesterday, also show 69 apparent suicides following custody in the most recent 12-month period.
The disturbing revelation emerged as Home Secretary Theresa May announced the launch of a major review into deaths and serious incidents in police custody following years of demands from bereaved families and campaigners.
The independent probe will examine the lead-up to and aftermath of deaths and serious incidents, with a focus on the support given to bereaved families, Ms May said.
It will also include an investigation into the use of restraints, suicides that take place within 48 hours of a suspect being detained and access to mental health facilities.
The Home Secretary said the review would build on work which has already started, including her pledge to spend up to £15 million to provide health-based alternatives for thousands of people who are held in police cells after being detained under the Mental Health Act.
Marcia Rigg-Samuel, whose brother Sean Rigg died at Brixton police station in 2008, said: “There is a clear need for a radical overhaul of how the whole system works following a death in police custody and I hope that the independent review will address this, as well as the root causes of these avoidable deaths and ensuring accountability for those who fail in their duties to members of the public.”
In 2012, an inquest jury found that that the police had used “unsuitable and unnecessary force” on Mr Rigg, that officers had failed to uphold his basic rights and that the failings of the police had “more than minimally” contributed to his death.
Ajibola Lewis, whose son Olaseni Lewis died after being restrained in a south-east London psychiatric hospital in August 2010, expressed concern that there had been no prior consultation with the families of those who died.
“If the review is going to be more than an exercise in public relations and if it is to enjoy the confidence of families in our position, it must find a meaningful way to learn from and reflect our experiences,” she said.