Custody in police stations is a very locked-down affair. People who have been arrested and are detained spend most of the time isolated in their cells. Custody visitors are the only outsiders who get to see the detainees in their cells.
My research has highlighted serious problems in the system of monitoring police custody now known as the Independent Custody Visiting Scheme. This scheme enables members of the public to make random, unannounced visits to check on the welfare of the detainees in police custody and to report to the local Police and Crime Commissioner.
In practice, I found that visitors are not independent of the police and lacked the required expertise to effectively monitor custody conditions. The scheme does not meet international human rights obligations and is probably counterproductive as it obscures the need for proper, effective regulation.
Custody blocks are the places where the hundreds of thousands of people who have been arrested each year are processed. The police have wide discretion in how they operate custody.
The police say the primary purpose of detention in custody is to make the suspect 'amenable' to investigation. There is little regulation except self-regulation, and what the police do there is largely invisible to the outside world.
Those who are detained in custody run the risk of being neglected and abused by the police. Whatever the extent of the actual neglect or abuse, it remains the case that 20 people each year die in police custody.
A former custody sergeant characterised custody in police stations as ‘a very locked-down environment, the police’s world, which nobody else except custody visitors really gets a view into’. But while the custody visitors may get a view into that locked-down environment, the power of the police and official policy prevent them from making independent and effective scrutiny of what is going on in custody.
The policy of custody visiting has been developed by the police and the Home Office. The scheme was not the brainchild of government, and the official approach to its development has been radically different from the lines envisaged by its original proponents, Michael Meacher MP and Lord Scarman.
Official policy prioritises the promotion of confidence in the police, not the welfare of detainees. Custody visiting is organised in a way that causes the police least trouble, and the authorities have airbrushed out the idea that custody visiting could be a deterrent to police misconduct that can lead to abuse and deaths in custody.
Under the Police Reform Act 2002, custody visitors are required to be independent of the police and the Police and Crime Commissioners. I found that the visitors were not independent, because of their background, the structure of the scheme and their socialisation and training by the police and the Police and Crime Commissioner.
The visitors often came from sections of society more favourable to the police. For example, some were related to, or friends with, police officers. Visitors who make trouble can be dismissed summarily, many did not keep their professional distance from the police, the training they received was solely from a police perspective and the visitors failed to challenge the police.
When it came to the most important issue of reducing the number of deaths in custody, many of the visitors thought their work had nothing to do with it.
Extensive reforms needed
The timing and privacy of visits as well as the overriding authority of police to control the visiting work compromised the whole regulatory function. I found that the visits took place at predictable times, and never during the night. I also found that the existence of the visiting scheme, specific visits and the reports of those visits, made no significant impact on police behaviour.
The police could delay admission to the custody block and deny access to some detainees. Even when visitors were allowed to see detainees, privacy was not always granted as custody staff remained close, making it impossible to talk confidentially.
Since custody visiting doesn’t live up to the claims made for it in the official literature, doesn’t provide reassurance to the public about custody and the Police and Crime Commissioner offer no useful information about the scheme, radical and extensive reforms are needed.
It would entail a proper regulatory system where:
- All visits were unexpected
- Visitors would gain immediate access to the custody blocks
- New statutory powers for the visitors would afford visitors independence and distance from the police
- Visitors would be trained by lawyers as well as the police
- Visitors would have the authority and expertise to challenge the police
- Reports as a result of visitation findings were publicly and widely available
- The scheme had much greater independence from the state.
Why have the police and the Home Office kept this ineffective scheme going? Their purpose has probably been to obscure the need for a greater degree of regulation.
In its current state, the visiting scheme lacks legitimacy, and when that is appreciated by politicians and the public alike, pressure for a reformed, truly independent and effective regulatory system must surely follow.
John Kendall is a retired commercial solicitor. With an interest in finding out about custody, though with no intention at that stage to write about custody visiting, he joined a local scheme and worked as a visitor for three years. Finding it very unsatisfactory, he looked, in vain, for academic analysis. He then undertook a self-funded research project at the University of Birmingham, and obtained access to visitors, custody blocks, police, and detainees. His thesis was centred on this case study, and he gained his PhD in 2017. Regulating police detention: Voices from behind closed doors, Policy Press, 2018, sets out much of the material in that research.