Custody blocks are the places where the hundreds of thousands of people who have been arrested each year are processed. Custody in police stations is a very locked-down affair. People who have been arrested and are detained there spend most of the time isolated in their cells. They run the risk of being neglected and abused by the police, and some 20 people each year die in police custody. The police say the primary purpose of detention in custody is to make the suspect “amenable” to investigation, which suggests pressure to make confessions. The police have wide discretion in how they operate custody. There is little regulation except self-regulation, and what the police do there is largely invisible to the outside world.
My study has revealed serious problems in the system of monitoring police custody which is 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. I am a retired commercial solicitor. With an interest in finding out about custody, though with no intention at that stage to write about custody visiting, I joined a local scheme and worked as a visitor for three years. I looked, in vain, for academic analysis. I then undertook a self-funded research project at the University of Birmingham, and obtained access to visitors, custody blocks, police, and detainees in a local visiting scheme which I believe to be typical of those in other parts of the country. Material from my PhD thesis has now been published in my book, Regulating Police Detention, Voices from behind closed doors: Policy Press 2018.
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 the 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 might lead to deaths in custody.
Each Police and Crime Commissioner has a statutory duty, which is, effectively by definition, impossible for them to fulfil, to ensure that custody visitors are independent of the police and the Police and Crime Commissioner: and, in any case, to do their job properly, visitors need to be independent. I found that the visitors were not independent, because of their background, the structure of the scheme, and their socialisation by the police and the Police and Crime Commissioner. The visitors often came from sections of society more favourable to the police, and some were related to police officers or friends with them; visitors who make trouble can be dismissed summarily; many did not keep their distance from the police; the training they receive was mono-culturally from the police’s point of view; and the visitors failed to challenge the police. And when it came to the most important, defining issue of reducing the number of deaths in custody, many of the visitors thought their work had nothing to do with it.
I found that the visits took place at predictable times, and never during the night. I found that the existence of the visiting scheme, and 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. The custody staff hovered close by the cells while the visitors were meeting those detainees they allowed them to see, making it impossible for the detainees to pass on confidential information. Custody visitors do not have the necessary expertise, and they are neither respected by the police nor trusted by the detainees. The scheme does not meet international human rights obligations. The Police and Crime Commissioner gave no useful information to the public about the work of the scheme. Custody visiting does not live up to the claims made for it in the official literature: it does not provide reassurance to the public about custody, nor does it contribute to police accountability. Custody visiting is in fact counterproductive, as it obscures the need for proper, effective regulation.
Could custody visiting make a more effective contribution to the regulation of police detention? Extensive and radical reforms would be needed. There would need to be a proper regulatory system where the visits did not occur at times when the police expected them; where the visitors would gain immediate access to the custody blocks; where new statutory powers for the visitors would force the police to take them seriously; where the visitors would be trained by lawyers as well as by the police; where visitors would challenge the police; where there was full publicity about the reports of the visitors’ concerns, the reactions of the police to their concerns and the changes that were made; and where 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 of the police. My research should show politicians and the public that the visiting scheme lacks legitimacy. When that is appreciated, pressure for these reforms must surely follow. People would see the urgent need for a regulator of police custody to be genuinely independent and rigorously effective.
John Kendall is a Visiting Scholar, Birmingham Law School; External Associate, the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing, University of Birmingham; and a former custody visitor
Image reproduced with the permission of Manchester Combined Authority