Re-imagining Police Custody


A Home Office commissioned report has today said that about a quarter of a million vulnerable people are not receiving the support of an “appropriate adult” while in police custody.

A few months ago, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary published their report on “The Welfare Of Vulnerable People In Custody” which made clear the distance still to travel in terms of how police manage the vulnerable in their care. I blogged about this at the time in a missive called One Size Fits All. The point of the title was to draw attention to the fact that custody suites are designed to be generic buildings with little to no provision for anyone with any form of vulnerability. A cell is a cell is a cell.

I happened to catch the last twenty minutes of 24 Hours In Police Custody this week. As a general rule I don’t watch police based programmes, fact or fiction, for the simple reason that they make me angry. I get annoyed at procedural errors and the editing and portrayal of police activity is often skewed towards the “watchable and exciting.” This often presents a misleading image of what policing is.

This episode was no exception and has reenforced my commitment to not watching police based TV.

It showed several people who appeared to have some form of mental illness. The first was a man who became increasingly agitated the longer he was in custody. Now, from where I was watching it was hard to determine whether some of this wasn’t an act. I say this because almost immediately upon his release the symptoms disappeared. Now this could simply be because he had been released and it therefore relieved his anxiety – I am no expert. However, the only option available to the custody team was to allow him into the exercise yard, on constant supervision with an officer, in the hope that it would calm him down. It didn’t.

The second male was a giant of a man who was acting very strangely. He had been seen by the Force Medical Examiner (FME) who had determined him fit to interview. By the time he was asked to accompany officers to the interview room it was clear that he was anything but fit to interview. Yet the officers said they were reluctant to undermine the FME and seek a second opinion. At one point he was taken to see the duty solicitor and within minutes he simply walked out of the room. The solicitor came to the custody desk and said he was unable to get instructions from him.

I have to be mindful of what might have been edited out here but the solicitor appeared to make no representations that the male might not be fit and might, at the very least, require an appropriate adult.

The programme went on to show him being interviewed, without either legal representation or appropriate adult. During the interview he stood up in the most intimidating way and this forced the two officers to back out of the room and press the panic alarm to summon assistance.

It was a credit to the officers who came to assist that the situation was resolved peaceably and without recourse to any use of force at all. It had the potential to become a very difficult and violent incident.

The programme went on to say that the male was seen again and sectioned. It also said that he was charged with the offences for which he was arrested. This shows that it is possible for someone to be mentally ill and still be capable of committing crime.

Overall, I was very concerned about the lack of appropriate adults in both of those instances. I was concerned by the fact that the officers didn’t seek a second opinion earlier in the latter case and confused as to why the legal representative didn’t say something.

It is therefore of interest that today’s report from the Home Office shows that many people are not getting access to appropriate adults. There are a number of factors to blame. One appears to be lack of awareness amongst police officers of when one might be required but another is the simple fact that there are not enough of them.

This has been the case for my entire service. It is notoriously difficult to get access to appropriate adults. There does not seem to be a centrally managed call out list of trained and suitable people.

It is even hard to get appropriate adults for children in care. Many, many times I have known social services or even the care home from which the child has come simply refuse to come out and act on their behalf.

This is something which needs to change. There are no shortages of volunteers to become Independent Custody Visitors so surely it cannot be impossible to run a campaign to increase the number of appropriate adults who could be called upon.

Appropriate adults are in constant demand. It almost makes sense to have them on the police payroll and available 24/7 but they have to be independent of the police.

Of as much concern is the fact that police officers seem to be unaware of when an appropriate adult is required. This was summed up beautifully in 24 Hours In Police Custody when an officer was asked what training she had in mental health. After a short pause she diplomatically replied “We get online training.”

It simply isn’t good enough.

Admittedly there are a lot of current demands for police to receive better training in many things. You run the danger of having officers spending all their time training but the answer is not and cannot be a click and point computer programme of compulsory input.

This is “tick box” training where an organisation can make it mandatory and then claim that the staff have “received training.” Whilst there is a responsibility for the user to undertake it and learn, the inputs are often very poor and there is no substitute for classroom based, interactive sessions. It’s no good the police delivering this either – there needs to be input from subject matter experts who can be questioned and challenged whilst sharing their expertise.

But returning to custody itself, it is increasingly clear that one size does not fit all. Police custody units are designed to flow at their best when the detainee is fit, healthy, sober, compliant, English-speaking and understands what is going on. I cannot think of the last time I met a detainee where at least one of those things on the list wasn’t present.

Custody units are hard environments with hard walls and doors. Previously, I have heard government ministers talk about how custody units should be “for criminals” and not for the vulnerable. This rather over simplifies the problem. Look back at the man in 24 Hours In Police Custody. Clearly he had some very big mental health issues and presented an enormous risk in terms of potential violence. Yet – he was suspected of, and later charged with, the offence of robbery.

Whilst it would be ideal never to have anyone in police custody who is solely there because of a mental health disturbance (as in – Section 136 of the Mental Health Act) we cannot avoid the fact that people with mental health disturbances will end up in custody because they are suspected of committing a criminal offence. This applies equally to the elderly, children and people with any number of possible health issues or vulnerabilities.

I have previously suggested that custody units might benefit from a “soft room” where a violent person might be taken instead of relying on physical restraint on a concrete floor. I am always met with cries of “ah, but that means other agencies will rely on the police too much and not take responsibility themselves.”

I don’t agree with that logic. Whether police like it or not they will always have to deal with violent people and they will still have to accept mentally ill people who “cannot be managed” elsewhere. It is the express will of government – we need to be ready for it.

One has to ask whether police custody actually needs to become far more tailored and adaptable.

Ultimately, its primary purpose is to hold people safely so that an investigation can take place. That should never be forgotten and the premises need to serve that purpose and be capable of securing some very dangerous people at times.

The staff in custody units are always busy and under pressure. It can be a very highly charged (no pun intended) atmosphere and is a very intense place to work. Detainees can be very demanding and often these demands aren’t real. Some detainees really do play up spectacularly and deliberately try to make life as difficult as possible for the officers and staff.

And yet there are many people held in police custody who have genuine needs. Many have addictions, many have mental health issues diagnosed or undiagnosed. Many have no-one who can act on their behalf and no support network of their own. Many have health issues brought on by poor life choices. Many don’t speak English as a first language.

Custody seems to be an ideal place to intervene here. There are many forces who have alcohol and drug advisors who will speak to detainees and try to offer them help.

It is no lie to say that you see the same people coming in and out of custody all the time (and I am not talking about the staff.) the vast majority of detainees will have been through the process before and in many cases many times.

They are dealt with for whatever offence they are suspected of and then released or sent before a court and it won’t be long before they are seen again. Sometimes even the same day.

This isn’t a criticism of sentencing or rehabilitation – it’s an observation that nothing seems to be done to stop the cycle.

Perhaps there is a better way. Perhaps custody provides the ideal opportunity – with a captive audience (pun intended) – to look at health, referrals and support for detainees. Not only as a means to help them but as a means to prevent them coming back and ultimately reduce demand.

When police see a victim of domestic abuse they will complete a risk assessment which is then further assessed and could lead to any number of agencies discussing the situation and getting involved.

We now see the rise of victim care programmes where huge effort is placed in contacting victims and supporting them after the event.

Both of these are absolutely valid and worthwhile but are we doing the same for suspects – especially vulnerable ones?

A modern custody unit, if you take all the various reports together, needs to be a hybrid detention centre, hospital, mental health suite and social care office with different facilities for children and the elderly. Such a place does not exist.

There are so many obstacles in the way which make assisting the vulnerable far more difficult. Most of the things needed are not immediately or readily available. It takes hours, sometimes days, to get access to medical, mental health, appropriate adult even linguistic support.

Despite the talk about police custody being a place for criminals, it isn’t. It is mostly a place for suspects and they are very different things.

Police custody is a pretty cold and harsh environment. It doesn’t need to be brightly painted with scatter cushions but the more I think about it the more of a revolving door I see. The more I see that custody could provide a far better opportunity to intercept and redirect someone towards help and support which may reduce crime and demand.

The more I think about it – the more I realise that custody units and the facilities in them and the ease with which staff can obtain the support they so frequently need to help the vulnerable simply isn’t there.

This is again, bigger than the police alone. It is something that Police and Crime Commissioners need to view with the same importance as supporting victims.

It relies on others stepping up to the plate as much as the police getting their own house in order.

A while back I proposed multi-agency hubs in control rooms in a blog called One Door.

The need for professionals from a range of disciplines to work together within the policing and criminal justice world is becoming increasingly evident. It should have been this way since 1998 but as budgets shrink it is becoming more and more obvious that a symbiotic relationship is mutually beneficial in terms of identifying and resolving issues and reducing demand for everyone. More importantly it helps the people themselves – directly and in a far more systemic way.

Custody is, perhaps, another ideal environment where this approach could be transformational, save lives and reduce crime and demand.

The Red Button Project is intended to allow front line practitioners, the public and people who work alongside the police to contribute ideas and thoughts on what a police service would look like if you had to design one from scratch. 

Previous blogs can be viewed on our blog site

You can follow us on Twitter @OldBillRebuilt and the hashtag #OldBillRebuilt. If you would like to contribute ideas, blogs or suggestions then please use the comments section below or contact @NathanConstable, @DedicatedPeeler or @EmWilliamsCCCU

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