‘Wide-ranging changes’ to force’s mental health response following custody death

All frontline officers in Avon and Somerset will receive mental health training to prevent the circumstances that led to a man’s death in custody from reoccurring.

Sep 7, 2017

All frontline officers in Avon and Somerset will receive mental health training to prevent the circumstances that led to a man’s death in custody from reoccurring. Temporary Inspector Justin French was cleared of gross misconduct on Wednesday (September 6), more than seven years after 25-year-old James Herbert died at Yeovil police station. Lawyers had accused T/Insp French of lying about how aggressive Mr Herbert had been during his arrest to justify why he delayed checking on him as he lay unconscious in his cell. Avon and Somerset Constabulary recognised there were “missed opportunities” in the case and pledged to create experts in mental health legislation to brief their colleagues. It will also offer classroom training to all frontline officers focusing on the Authorised Professional Practice, as well as specialist classes on recognising symptoms of Acute Behavioural Disorder. A second misconduct hearing will be held in due course. Assistant Chief Constable Nikki Watson said: “James’ death was deeply distressing for everyone involved and we have been, and continue to be, fully committed to do everything possible to ensure lessons are learned from his death and a similar tragedy is prevented from happening again.” She added: “It’s clear there were missed opportunities in the way we dealt with James on that day and for that we’re extremely sorry, but we haven’t been waiting for the outcome of these proceedings to implement fundamental and wide-reaching changes in how we respond to people experiencing mental health crisis.” Mr Herbert was detained under the Mental Health Act in June 2010 after he was seen running in and out of traffic. By the time he arrived at Yeovil police station, he had become unresponsive and was placed in a cell. An inquest later ruled he had died of cardiac arrest after taking a ‘legal high’. However, it also found poor communication between officers regarding his mental health, delays in calling for medical assistance and the lack of close monitoring may have contributed to his death. The misconduct hearing heard T/Insp French had believed Mr Herbert was feigning unconsciousness, which delayed the decision to call an ambulance. He did not mention Mr Herbert being aggressive in notes taken at the time, but later told the Independent Police Complaints Commission he overheard him lashing out while being transported to custody. Prosecutor Robert Talalay QC accused him of “covering tracks” over his “lack of appropriate action to take care of Mr Herbert”. T/Insp French insisted he had given an honest account of what he believed had occurred. Since 2010, Avon and Somerset Constabulary has overhauled its treatment of people in mental health crises through a series of new initiatives. In 2012, it established places of safety for children detained under the Mental Health Act and later entirely ruled out the use of custody for under-18s. The force has introduced a liaison and diversion scheme which has so far helped more than 2,100 people, and since 2014 it has used a ‘Mental Health tag’ in its control rooms to highlight key incidents. Last September, it launched a multi-agency triage pilot bringing mental health nurses into its control room, which responded to 844 calls for assistance last month alone. Ms Watson said it is “vital” the force’s progress in this area does not stop and that officers are “continually learning and improving”.

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