TWENTY-THREE people died in or following police custody in England and Wales last year - the highest number for a decade.
Figures from the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) show there were nine more police custody deaths in 2017/18 than the previous year.
Last year, those who died included eight people who were taken ill in a police cell. One was a pregnant woman who was under the influence of alcohol but had been found fit to be detained; and another a man who had earlier been restrained using a spit hood and leg straps.
Nine of those who died were taken ill at the scene of their arrest, four became unwell in a police vehicle and two died following release.
IOPC director-general Michael Lockwood said the rise in deaths was “concerning”.
He said: “What is clear is that many present a complex and challenging set of factors, with links to drugs and alcohol and mental health concerns being very prevalent among those who have died.”
Seventeen people who died had been restrained or had force used against them by police or others, but the use of force did not necessarily contribute to their deaths. Twelve of the 23 people who died in 2017/18 had mental health concerns, while 18 were users of drugs or alcohol.
North Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Julia Mulligan, speaking on behalf of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, said forces have concerns about mental health and drug support services in some areas.
“Police and Crime Commissioners have longed campaigned for people with health problems to be dealt with effectively by the health service, and although we welcome recent changes in legislation that make police custody very firmly the exception, we do have concerns about provision in some areas. The same is true for substance misuse support services,” she said.
Two of the deaths were in Yorkshire. Bradford woman Claire Harper, 41, died in January after being detained by West Yorkshire Police at Trafalgar House Police Station, Bradford.
Another death, involving a man recently released from police custody, was in North Yorkshire. Officials have not yet identified the man.
Investigations into both deaths are ongoing.
Both forces said the welfare of the people they came into contact with was a high priority.
West Yorkshire Police’s Detective Chief Superintendent Os Khan said: "West Yorkshire Police is one of the largest police forces in the country and our officers and staff have contact with thousands of people on a daily basis, often in difficult and challenging circumstances, when people are at their most vulnerable.
“Safeguarding is a key priority for us and whether an individual comes to our attention as a missing person, victim or suspected offender; an assessment will be made of any medical issues or any threat that they may pose to themselves and measures put in place to try and mitigate any issues identified."
A North Yorkshire Police spokesman said: “The safety and welfare of all those we come into contact with is paramount.
“The true nature of policing means that, sadly, many of the situations we deal with involve people who are unwell or have been harmed by others or themselves."