"In your care and custody": When police officers become corrections officers

Just what does the term “In your care and custody” mean?

This last week the airwaves have been alive with the buzz from the Sky Harbor (Phoenix) airport incident that left a woman dead in a police holding cell. It was hard to find a news program or day talk show not discussing this tragic incident. This generated a lot of discussions among people that I know including police and corrections officers, law enforcement trainers, other professionals, family members, and friends. The span of their opinions was fascinating. On one end, people focused on the fact that a woman obviously intoxicated, alone, in crisis, and out-of-control died alone, in distress, handcuffed to a bench in a police holding cell. Some of the other non-law enforcement comments might surprise you. Some people that I have talked to questioned why this very vulnerable, psychologically fragile, alcoholic was traveling alone on a non direct flight to a treatment facility across the country. The bottom line cannot be disputed, however, in that the police are the final safety net for these types of people and that the safety net failed to keep her safe.

We need to remember that when police officers take a prisoner into custody they have just become “short term” corrections (custody) officers

This statement sometimes surprises street officers who often don’t understand all the implications of having a prisoner in their “custody.”  It doesn’t matter whether you are a police officer transporting a prisoner from a street arrest scene, a police officer picking up a prisoner for court, a police officer transporting a sick inmate, a detective taking a prisoner out of lock up to a remote site for an interview, or an airport police officer holding a person for transport, you are now responsible for that prisoner’s “care and wellbeing.”   

Understanding this concept will keep you safer—both physically and legally. Police officers, once you take a subject into custody that person becomes a prisoner. He or she is now in custody and you are totally responsible for their “care and wellbeing” until such time as you request additional assistance and find other law enforcement, medical healthcare professionals, or mental health professional to assist you or are able to turn the prisoner over to other appropriate public safety professionals. In other words, YOU ARE IT. You need to understand this and understand how to do your job properly, legally, and safely. Once you take the subject into custody you are, in fact, a correctional (custody) officer with all the responsibilities an officer working in a custody assignment has. You need to understand the rules and learn how to play the game—a game that can cost you money, your job, and even your freedom if you don’t do it well. Welcome to the wonderful word of corrections.

First of all, you need to understand that prisoners in custody have a new set of rights based on their status as a prisoner. They are in your “care and custody” and you are responsible for them until you can turn them over to someone else. For a street officer this is usually to a corrections facility; but it could be a hospital and/or mental health facility; or in some cases to a responsible adult. While the prisoner is in your “care and custody”, you need to understand a basic correctional concept referred to as the "first responder philosophy."

Please review these Corrections1.com tactical tips:

Responding to correctional emergencies

Think before you act to avoid getting into a jam

The importance of attending to a prisoner’s medical needs

The bottom line is that for all prisoners in custody, you are responsible not only their immediate medical wellbeing but also their long-term monitoring. This long(er) term monitoring spans the entire time that the prisoner is under your span of control—whether that be 5 minutes or 5 hours. This term refers to a prisoner’s long term medical, mental health, and/or security needs. Once a prisoner is taken into custody, whether on the street or in a correctional, medical, mental health, or treatment facility, the staff is responsible not only for their immediate medical condition but for monitoring their “long term” medical, mental health, and security needs. This is where the disconnect begins.

Street officers are usually able to get the prisoner restrained. They also understand that they need to take care of the prisoner’s immediate medical needs but often don’t understand that they need to continue to monitor their prisoner’s medical condition. This failure to continue to monitor the prisoner’s medical status often occurs with tragic and long-term consequences for both the officers involved and their agencies as in the case of a custody death.

See the www.BLUtube.com video tactical tip: Initial medical assessment

Prisoners during transportation or in holding cells, pending transportation, must be closely monitored to insure that they don’t become a physical danger to the officers involved and aren’t experiencing a medical emergency. These prisoners being transported or held pending transportation must also be monitored for a mental health issues that may impact their safety. As any experienced police officer knows, many people who are arrested exhibit bizarre and, oftentimes, violent behavior due to their immediate personal crisis situations, drugs and alcohol on board, existing mental health issues, etc. These persons can be very dangerous to the officers who are caring for them but can also be dangerous to themselves. Their actions can intentionally or unintentionally become self-harming and even suicidal. Police Officers must understand that people in custody and in crisis, for whatever reason, are in the “care and custody” of the attending officers until such time as they can be turned over to the proper correctional, medical, mental health facility or an appropriate adult. These people need to be closely monitored for existing, developing, or delayed medical, mental health, and/or security issues.    

And when it’s all over, you need to carefully document your actions. Remember that you may not know at the point of impact or shortly afterwards that this incident is going to go bad for you. Write your report as if you were going to be accused of wrong doing. Tell the whole story. Take the time to document your professional response. You know that the attorneys that may come after you will be painting quite a different picture. Protect yourself. See the attached PoliceOne report writing template to assist you.

Legal Insights: Reporting the whole story

In closing, police officers need to remember that once they take a subject into custody, that they have just become a correctional (custody) officer for the duration of the arrest, transport, and even detention prior to turnover to the appropriate facility or person. Don’t relax too soon. It can come back to bite you—physically and legally.

For more information about this topic, please contact Gary T. Klugiewicz at gtklugiewicz@cs.com

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