THE CELLS at North Yorkshire Police are in “meltdown” and the force is heading for a death in custody, an officer has warned.

A serving custody officer claims staffing levels in his department are so bad that they are causing major problems for the force – and could be putting lives at risk.

Will Scarlet claims custody sergeants are regularly going without meal breaks and holidays are being “eaten into” because there are not enough supervisors at the force’s five custody centres.

Sergeant Scarlet, who is also secretary of the sergeants’ branch board of the Police Federation, said: “Centralised custody units were formed in 1999 and there has not been an increase in staffing levels since then.

“However, workload has magnified, we have different IT systems, different procedures and there are a larger number of people in detention.

“I used to come on duty and there would be nobody [in the cells]. Now I come on and there are people in custody 24 hours a day.”

He also said that detainees were frequently being “de-arrested” – where people are told to leave the police station and come back at a later date to face possible charges – because there are no cells left.

Sgt Scarlet, who also sits on the federation’s national custody forum, raised the issue at a closed section of a recent meeting of North Yorkshire Police Federation.

He told Jane’s Police Review it was not unusual for him to sit at a desk for 10 hours without a meal break, which he said was a contravention of the European Working Time Regulations.

He also said that custody officers are being told they have to work into their rest days and days off in lieu with little chance of getting them back.

“My worry is that because of the workload and because there are not enough staff somebody will slip through the net and we will end up with a death in custody,” he added. “We do not want that for the person, for the families or for the custody officer, but it worries me that it will be the end result.”

Grahame Maxwell, the force’s chief constable, told delegates the force is currently undertaking a review of custody and that the centralised custody suites could be ‘devolved back to areas’, meaning local basic command units would take responsibility for them.

A spokesperson for North Yorkshire Police said: “A review of custody is planned and consideration will be given to the points raised and they will be picked up as part of the review process. “We have robust systems in place to preserve the right to life.”