What's going on in police custody?

You may have heard the term “custody suites”. These are the places where the hundreds of thousands of people who have been arrested each year are processed. They may be kept there for up to 96 hours, and up to seven days in the case of suspected terrorists. Police custody isolates the individual, and it can be a frightening and dangerous experience for detainees.

The police use custody, in their own words, to make detainees “amenable to the investigation of a criminal offence of which they are suspected”. This is because detainees are more likely to confess while in detention in a custody suite. Currently the police are subject to very little regulation in their operation of custody. In fact, regulation is mostly self-regulation, with a full inspection of every custody suite just once every six years. Under the statutory Independent Custody Visiting Scheme, custody visitors make random unannounced visits to check on the welfare of detainees being held in custody suites, with a view to deterring police misconduct which could lead to deaths in custody. International human rights law requires the United Kingdom to fulfil this regulatory role through a visiting scheme.

Yet Dr John Kendall’s research found that the visiting scheme was not effective, and that the work of the visitors made no impact on the behaviour of the police. On average, a visit was made to each custody suite once a week. The visits were found to take place at predictable times, and never during the night. The central activity of these visits was meeting detainees in their cells. The meetings were usually of no more than five minutes’ duration and were supervised by a member of the custody staff. The visitors were supposed to check on the welfare of the detainees and to find out whether they had any concerns, in particular with regard to medical issues. Because the meetings with the detainees were so brief, and because of the supervision by custody staff as can be seen in the photograph below (insert photo below this para), the detainees did not have the confidence to pass on any significant concerns to the visitors.

The visiting scheme is branded as independent, and to do their job properly, custody visitors need to be independent, but the structure of the scheme makes that impossible. The local Police and Crime Commissioner is required by statute to ensure that the visitors are independent both of the police and of the Commissioner, but the Commissioner has complete control over the hiring, firing and conduct of the visitors. Visitors who cause trouble can be dismissed, many do not keep their distance from the police, the training they receive is mono-culturally from the police’s point of view, the visitors fail to challenge the police, and visitors have no independent means, individual or corporate, of making their views known to anyone except the Commissioner. And when it came to the most important, defining issue of deaths in custody, almost all the visitors who were interviewed thought their work had very little to do with it. There continue to be an average of 20 deaths in custody each year, with a disproportionate number of BAME detainees, mirroring similar police bias against black and brown people in, for instance, the unbalanced number of instances of stop and search. Some 60 people a year commit suicide after leaving custody. No notice is taken of this: compare the furore about just one suicide after an appearance on the Jeremy Kyle programme. Reform of the custody visiting scheme should reduce the incidence of deaths in, and shortly after, custody.

Dr Kendall’s findings about the custody visiting scheme have been sent to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee for their current inquiry into police complaints.  It is hoped the committee will recommend radical reform of the visiting scheme.


Arts Matters

At the College of Arts and Law, we explore what it means to be human – in historical and cultural contexts, within ethical and legal norms and through languages and communication.

Arts Matters is a series of lunchtime lectures from across the College’s wide range of research disciplines. Each week our researchers discuss their work, sharing the concepts and ideas that matter to them - and why these matter to all of us. 

From 27 October 2021, a new lecture will be broadcast on the University’s YouTube channel, every Wednesday at 13:00 GMT.