Sir Robert Peel's test for the police service was the absence of crime and disorder and in pursuit of this goal; all too often it becomes necessary to detain individuals in police custody. For many, their knowledge of that environment is shaped by crime dramas and television documentaries, but even so a significant number experience police detention first hand. In 2008/09 almost 1.5 million people, or roughly the combined population of Birmingham and Cardiff, entered custody.
It is a critical area of police work: through detention, officers are often given the necessary time to investigate a case so that a fair charging decision can be reached. Safe and secure police custody is an important element in the criminal justice process and this was seen in the recent summer disorder where custody sergeants, officers and staff played their role in dealing with significant numbers of offenders quickly and efficiently.
But it is not just the volume of those detained which makes the custody environment complex. A significant proportion of detainees - up to 30 per cent - will need to see a medical practitioner and approximately 1 in 5 detainees is a juvenile. Furthermore, police custody is also designated a place of safety which means that those people sectioned under the Mental Health Act can be taken there when no other place for them is available, even when no crime has been committed.
The experience for the majority of detainees is safe and secure. While many of our police buildings date back to the Victorian era, significant improvements have been made to custody environments in recent years. Safety and security is at their heart and the facilities are tightly controlled with CCTV, clear lines of sight and cell infrastructure designed to protect not just officers but also detainees.
Despite these safeguards, inspections by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) and the knowledge and experience of custody suite officers, the custody environment is not entirely without risk. Of the 1.5 million people detained in 2008/09, 15 died in custody or following detention. As with any death following police contact, each and every death in custody is investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
There are always lessons to be learned and the custody environment is open and can be inspected relatively easily due to the high level of oversight. This does not mean we are complacent and where an individual officer or culture of an organisation has been found to have compromised the safety of detainees disciplinary action can be taken against them within the service or, depending on the nature of the incident, in a court of law.
Chief officers are absolutely committed to maintaining the highest standards of safety and security in custody suites. This is not simply because the safety of detainees is ultimately the chief constable’s responsibility, or due to the regular inspections by HMIC or various legislative provisions such as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) or Corporate Manslaughter Act. The death of any individual while they are in the care of the police service can have a significant impact on public confidence in the service and we rely on that confidence to maintain law and order.
Custody sergeants, officers and staff are not just critical to frontline policing, but they are also on the frontline of the criminal justice system. The vast majority perform a difficult, and sometimes dangerous, job with professionalism and concern for those in their care, even when faced with some of the most challenging individuals and circumstances in policing.
Andy Adams is Assistant Chief Constable of Kent Police and ACPO lead for custody and movement of prisoners.
1. Hannan, M., et al. (2011). Deaths in or following police custody: an examination of the cases 1988/99 – 2008/09. (IPCC Research Series Paper: 17) .