Monitoring race and gender equality in custody suites

Work with offenders looks at a new report exploring the effectiveness of independent custody visitors

A new report published today by the Criminal Justice Alliance looks at the effectiveness of independent custody visitors at monitoring race and gender equality in police custody. Entitled “Just Visiting?”, the report is written by Amal Ali and Hannah Pittaway.

About independent custody visitors

Several mechanisms exist to scrutinise policing and the use of police powers in England and Wales. These include stop and search community scrutiny panels; police monitoring groups; independent advisory groups; and independent custody visiting schemes. Independent custody visitors are members of the local community who volunteer to visit police stations unannounced and monitor the treatment and welfare of people held in police custody. As of February 2021, there were approximately 1,400 custody visitors working across 46 local schemes in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Jersey. Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are responsible for administering custody visits to detainees in police custody suites across England and Wales and the Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA) leads, represents and supports individual custody visiting schemes to be more effective, ensure the welfare of detainees and deliver oversight of police custody.

Findings

The report is based on survey responses from 130 custody visitors in addition to a series of focus group interviews. The main findings of the report are set out below:

  • Almost all the custody visitors and scheme managers who participated in the research had a clear commitment to equality and diversity. They placed significant importance on tackling discrimination and unfair treatment of detainees in police custody. Even where participants identified challenges, there was generally a strong dedication to overcoming these barriers to improve their effectiveness.
  • The researchers found that over recent years, custody visitors have effectively improved some aspects of welfare and treatment of women and ethnic minority detainees in police custody including the proactive offer of menstrual sanitary products to women and girls; highlighting strip-searches of black children and ensuring women have access to female staff.
  • The report says that while nearly all survey respondents were aware of issues related to race and gender equality in police custody, a very small number of custody visitors showed a limited understanding. These attitudes ranged from a poor understanding of institutional racism and the negative impact of discrimination on detainees to dismissing other custody visitors’ and scheme managers’ positive efforts to identify and challenge indirect discrimination.
  • The research found that a small number of custody visitors underestimated the impact of discrimination on detainees, dismissing it as harmless and arising out of police custody staff’s ignorance, stereotyping or a lack of understanding. This is despite the fact that the widely recognised definition of institutional racism includes ignorance, thoughtlessness and stereotyping.
  • Some custody visitors did not collect disaggregated data (where it was available) to identify any indirect discrimination against women and minority ethnic detainees as they felt that this would be treating detainees unequally. There was limited understanding that some detainees need to be treated differently to be treated equitably.
  • None of the custody visitors involved in the research said that they had witnessed direct discrimination against women or minority ethnic detainees. Some scheme managers said they were concerned that custody visitors in their scheme were overly confident that this also meant there was no indirect discrimination.
  • The training provided to custody visitors was regarded as being of high quality although several custody visitors were dismissive of the benefits of training which focused on anti-racism or identifying discrimination and instead saw it as ‘divisive’ and ‘harmful’.

Perhaps the most important finding was that custody visitors in many areas did not represent the diversity of their local communities. While, many schemes had tried to improve the diversity of their custody visitors, most regarded this as an ongoing challenge,

The report concludes by making a series of 30 recommendations to try to improve the diversity of custody visiting schemes and improve data collection. Readers can find the full report here.