Drunk tanks and booze buses should be used to take some of the burden of hopelessly intoxicated people off the hands of police, a report has said.
Local authorities were urged to take another look at alternatives to police station cells when people simply need to sober up. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said the move could help save lives as many are held behind bars inappropriately.
The police watchdog called on the Home Office and Department of Health to pilot alternative facilities for drunks where they can have medical care. The call was made in a comprehensive analysis of 333 deaths in police custody over the 11 years until April 2009. It documented how there had been a substantial fall in the number of deaths from 49 in 1998/99 to 15 in 2008/09.
The latest figures for 2009/10, published separately, revealed 17 people died, including two in police shootings. The downward trend was in part due to improved police cells design, better use of restraint techniques and decisions to send ill prisoners to hospital.
Mike Franklin, of the IPCC, said the study found many people needed treatment for medical or mental health problems. He said the research highlighted how cells may not be the best place for "a large number of people" held by police.
Mr Franklin said: "As a high number of people with medical and mental health needs will inevitably find their way into police custody, we need better collaboration between police forces and the NHS to ensure the right healthcare is available. We are reiterating our call for the NHS to provide more alternative places of safety, and for police forces to ensure sufficient forensic physicians are available to carry out mental health assessments."
Alternative facilities for heavily intoxicated people, dubbed drunk tanks, were introduced in Scotland six years ago. Police worked with charities and the NHS to get drunk and incapable people off the streets before they can commit an offence.
The scheme mirrored similar projects in Europe, the United States and Australia but has not been picked up widely in England and Wales. In some major cities, including London, ambulance services run vehicles dedicated solely to dealing with drunks who have hurt themselves or are in danger.
Association of Chief Police Officer (Acpo) guidelines published in 2006 said drunk and drugged people should not be put in police cells.
The IPCC report found there is a "strong link" between alcohol and people dying in custody and said new procedures should be put in place. Almost three-quarters (72%) of those who died were arrested for offences linked to drink or drugs, were intoxicated or both. Of the 87 people arrested for being drunk and incapable or disorderly, 60 were not held for any other criminal offence.