There are few aspects of policing that are more fundamental to the job than the ability to safely detain people in custody.
Locking up those who are a problem to others, or themselves, is a core part of keeping the community safe, and very few police stations have ever been set up without access to a cell or cell block.
Despite the long history of police taking people into custody, it’s painfully clear we are still trying to get it right in terms of managing risk.
Lessons learnt from past mistakes have been applied sporadically and inconsistently despite a raft of recommendations, including from two previous IPCA reviews (2012 and 2015) into police custody management in New Zealand.
For several years, Police Association members have been raising red flags on custody suite staffing levels and training and the antiquated state of some cell blocks.
The High Court trial this year of three Hāwera police officers charged with manslaughter after an intoxicated and, unbeknown to them, drugged man died in a police station cell in 2019 highlighted with unnerving clarity the risks around custody management. The officers were found not guilty.
Police has been promising a review of custody for some time and last month it was able to update the association on progress on its Custody Enhancement Programme (CEP), led by Acting Superintendent Bronwyn Marshall and programme manager Lisette Nolan, overseen by Assistant Commissioner Tusha Penny.
Bronwyn, Lisette and Deputy Commissioner Tania Kura spoke to the association’s board of directors about the improvements delivered so far.
The initial stages began in 2020, with refreshed training for staff and upgrades to the Electronic Custody Modules regarding risk assessment, including how electronic alerts, or pop-ups, are managed, and improved supervisor oversight.
This year, Bronwyn said, the team had reconciled 551 recommendations, near misses, lessons learnt and reports and reviews from a variety of sources, including OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture), People in Police Custody, PPP (Policy, Practice and Procedure), Safe Custody and Transportation of Prisoners and the IPCA reports into deaths in custody.
Police has identified a need to focus on supervision, training, policies and procedures, critical equipment and infrastructure.
Bronwyn said 67 per cent of recommendations had already been addressed and the balance was being assigned for completion.
A National Custody team has been set up to support districts to deliver custody services, including monitoring and reporting on performance, health, safety and risk.
Specialisation in custody roles is being considered. “A piece of work using human-centred design will explore the introduction of specialist positions, which could include career development opportunities for authorised officers.”
In addition, the National Custody Team would oversee an “end-to-end” review of what training was needed for the custodial environment.
Police has already made a commitment to supply all permanent authorised officers (AOs), of which there are around 300, with Police mobile devices, including access to mobile tools, over the next financial year.
There have already been upgrades in critical equipment at custody suites, including new mattresses, tear-resistant blankets and smocks, metal detectors, restraint equipment and first aid kits.
Priority for the upgrades and delivery of equipment has been given to South Island districts and others that had indicated an immediate need. Replaced blankets and mattresses are being given to charity.
“Minor” capital works are under way at 16 priority cellblock sites to add anti-pick sealant and replace sprinkler heads and smoke detectors.
Police is also planning to review 20 sites against its newly developed custody guidelines, with a mixture of provincial, rural and urban custody hubs yet to be confirmed, to help it plan further remediation of existing infrastructure.
Meanwhile, a custody dashboard has been created for districts to provide “a systemic approach to managing risk”, and a project called the national Custody Quality Assurance Improvement Framework was rolled out at the end of July.
The charging of the three police officers in Hāwera created an uneasy atmosphere among custody staff who, as Police Association president Chris Cahill has commented, have rightly been feeling nervous.
One member who works as custody supervisor at a large police station says the prosecution heightened awareness among staff about the legal risks associated with their jobs.
For some time, he says, he had already been concerned at the level of medical and control and restraint training given to custody staff.
People in police care often have a much higher incidence of adverse health conditions than the general public, he says, and custody staff, particularly AOs, should be trained beyond simple first aid.
“They need to be able to correctly assess mental health symptoms and to measure and analyse cardiovascular numbers such as heart rate and blood pressure.”
The officer says he has encountered false reports of respiratory difficulties, a non-existent stroke, excited delirium, drug-induced psychosis, wide-ranging mental health issues and self-harm incidents.
“Our ability to make an assessment reflects our knowledge and training, but despite our duty of care to people with complex health conditions, we only have generic first aid training. Over the course of my life, I have completed 12 first aid courses and I can say with some confidence that I don’t think I have learnt much from the last six or so.
“Custody staff have been given the absolute minimum training despite custody units being recognised as the highest risk area of policing after pursuits. Now that pursuits are happening less frequently, custody must occupy the top position.”
It’s a message he hopes will underpin the work of the Custody Enhancement Programme.
Acting Superintendent Bronwyn Marshall, far left, Deputy Commissioner Tania Kura and programme manager Lisette Nolan, who briefed the Police Association last month on Police’s Custody Enhancement Programme.