There are many areas of disabled life that are covered on various websites and yet there are still many that are not discussed, and one topic came to mind whilst watching Police Interceptors. What happens when a disabled person is arrested in the UK?
I love a Police TV programme and whilst watching one night as the officers arrested someone and marched them off to custody, I suddenly wondered how equipped they were to deal with someone who is disabled?
Luckily my wife is friends with an Essex Police officer and so she emailed her and within a few days Sergeant Amanda Turner, who works at Southend Police station in the custody suite, was sat opposite me in our lounge answering all my questions.
Just because someone is disabled, that doesn’t stop them being on the wrong side of the law!
I admit that I had imagined that Essex Police wouldn’t be very well-equipped to deal with someone like myself who is a wheelchair user, in pain and on heaps of meds.
I was wrong!
In 2015 the police station in Southend-on-Sea, Essex had a major refurbishment and during that refurbishment they made sure that their custody suite was accessible.
First I am going to discuss being taken into custody as a wheelchair user and I would like to state that I have never been arrested and I also did not make this enquiry because there is a chance I could be arrested!
The custody suite at Southend is accessible, it has ramp access, all doors including cell doors were widened to cater for wheelchair users and having a wheelchair user in custody is apparently not a rare event as they have a regular visitor who is indeed a wheelchair user.
When you are arrested all of your details including medical will be taken and this will be forwarded to the custody suite, that way they are prepared for your arrival.
If you are on prescribed medication, your meds will either be collected on route to custody or someone will be sent (with your permission) to collect them.
Of course, I asked “Do you handcuff wheelchair users?”, the answer was that handcuffs are only used for two reasons. These are risk of escape and or for someone who is being physically violent to prevent injury, this protects both the Police officers and the person being arrested.
So as with anyone, if you don’t want to be handcuffed, behave yourself. This does raise the question of mental health though and I will discuss that later in the post!
First and foremost everyone coming into custody will be assessed as per their suitability to be in the suite in the first place, this is based on the sergeants’ assessment, if they can be dealt with in other ways, then that will take priority, this could be something like a written interview outside a police station setting.
As a wheelchair user who can’t mobilise, you will be allowed to have your wheelchair in the cell with you. This of course depends on whether you can be trusted, because there are many places on a wheelchair that could be used to hide items or weapons, and even the removable axel pins could be used as a weapon.
The regular visitor to Southend custody suite who is a wheelchair user is very well known for using the frame of their wheelchair to conceal items.
The custody suite has their own wheelchair and so if there is a perceived risk of letting you have your wheelchair, then you will use their one.
I have seen on TV, cells with very thin mattresses and often wondered what happens if you have chronic pain or a back injury etc, but Essex Police has mattresses that are a lot thicker and if one of those wasn’t available, then they would double or triple up the thin one’s for you.
The only issue I think someone with a disability might have is using the toilet. They can’t put up handrails because these can and would be torn off by undesirable cell occupants and used as a weapon.
However, you can ask for help by pressing the call button in the cell and they could then escort you to an accessible toilet.
You will even find that there are accessible showers in the custody suite!
There will be a heath professional in the Custody Suite who will be there to look after your needs and to make sure you get your medication when you need it.
There are a few police stations in Essex where the custody suites are not up to scratch yet and not accessible and so a wheelchair user would be taken to the nearest custody suite that was accessible and that may mean being taken out of the area where you live.
There is a mental health crisis in this country. Unfortunately, there is not enough support for people with mental health issues and so, not enough help for people whose mental health starts to become a problem and the Police are there on the front line and being left to deal with issues caused by mental health.
Again, the reasons for handcuffing someone are only ever, risk of escape and behaviour that could result in the police officers or the person being dealt with being injured.
Unfortunately, this does mean that someone in a mental health crisis may be restrained and handcuffed. It is for their own safety and the safety of the police officers.
In an ideal world a mental health team would also attend; but with budgets being constantly cut, this isn’t possible, and so we have front line police dealing with people and being forced to arrest them for their own safety.
On arrival in custody you are placed in a Perspex fronted holding cell, if you suffer from severe anxiety and or claustrophobia and the fact the door is locked is an issue, then a police officer will sit with you rather than locking you in the holding cell.
The first questions asked in custody are:
- Time of arrest
- Time of arrival
- Offence arrested for Necessity for arrest*
- Any domestic, hate crime or vulnerability markers?
- Offence date*/location.
* these are probably two of the biggest questions for rejecting a detainee!
If the date is old and officers have not made suitable attempts to deal with the person. If the necessity to arrest is not there or strong enough. Code G of P.A.C.E. can give the custody sergeant the opportunity to not authorise detention if they don’t think the investigation is expeditious enough or if the code G’s are weak!!!
With the main cell, once you have been processed into custody, some cells have a long window rather than the hatch in the door to help with people who cannot mentally cope with being confined in a closed space.
Again, if this is still too much for you, then a police officer will sit outside the cell and the door will be left open. This will also happen if someone is deemed high risk or what they call a Cat 4 and are at risk of self harm.
Unfortunately with all the provisions put in place to help people with physical and mental health issues, the regulars who know how to play the system, they will say they have certain needs when in fact they don’t and this is to just play the system and to make life harder on the staff in custody. They like to get even the smallest win!
Everyone is physically checked on every half an hour, this is to make sure they are still breathing etc, however some stations now have the equivalent of the cot alarm systems that are used for babies that will sound an alert if the person stops breathing.
For people who are hearing impaired, when being booked in there are two screens. One for the custody officer and one facing out and by pressing a foot pedal the info is shown on that screen and so they could read from that and understand what is being asked.
I did ask about somebody who is sight impaired being brought into custody, and Amanda said that she has never had someone who is blind brought into custody!
Of course there are people whose disability is not obvious, but with all the procedures put in place by Essex Police, you should be able to have your needs met whilst in custody.
As I said at the beginning of this post, Southend-on-Sea Police station was refurbished in 2015 and there will still be some stations that are not as well-equipped to deal with wheelchair users, but over time they will be refurbished and made accessible where possible. Some stations have a custody suite that is accessed only by stairs.
I think to round it up, the best advice is that if you are being arrested, even if you think that your arrest is not justified, the best thing you can do is to communicate with the arresting officers calmly. Let them know you have a disability and or health condition.
A custody sergeant will always question the arrival of a disabled detainee more stringently than that of an able-bodied person, ultimately is custody the right place for them, or could it be dealt with outside the custody environment?
As I said previously, unfortunately there will be people who are in crisis and are unable to communicate calmly and there is a possibility that handcuffs and leg restraints will be used. It is far from ideal, but the police have to protect yours and their own safety and sometimes restraint is the only way.
With up-to-date training and retraining, the needs of people who are in crisis and how to deal with them will be updated and in an ideal world, there would be trained mental health staff on round the clock call.
Thank you to Sergeant Amanda Turner for taking the time to answer my questions.
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Check out my post on Flying from Southend Airport with a disability!