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Custody: An opportunity not a process

The police custody process is not just about safety but should be seen as an opportunity to change offending behaviour for the better writes Peter Merry, Warwickshire and West Mercia Police's head of Criminal Justice and Detainee Services

Having recently taken over responsibility for police custody as part of a wider criminal justice portfolio, I have had the opportunity to reflect on its use over the years.

How can we use this to assist in defining the future ethos, principles and strategic intent of the Warwickshire and West Mercia forces I work for?

Recognising the clear and unambiguous direction, guidance and advice that we have collectively accrued over the years in addition to the wealth of supporting documentation, from the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984, through the College of Policing Authorised Professional Practice (APP), to the guidance that has come from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Independent Police Complaints Commission, I still feel we have further opportunities for critical assessment and application.

'What' versus 'how'

It would be foolish for any consideration to move away from or reduce the focus on "safer detention". Indeed, the importance of a clean, safe and effective operation that ensures individual and personal welfare is paramount. However, for me there is latitude around safer detention becoming the "what" we do, as opposed to the "how" we do custody.

My personal view is that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - an academic model used to identify what human beings need - is the fundamental paradigm for how we should operate a police custody facility.  I will go on to explain why those needs should be exclusively "detainee-centric".

Part of a bigger picture

We need to look at the bigger picture and there are a number of key issues which are part of that wider focus. The first is around the dare I say strategic role of custody as a point of intervention into the lives of people. A great many of our detainees have been or will be our victims. A great many of them also have challenges in their lives that are complex and require significant support and investment. Those with low attainment in education, employment and training have been shown to be at a 260 per cent higher risk of offending than the average.

When you add chaotic lifestyles, unstable families and home environments or mental health issues, this figure rises to 500 per cent. Therefore, the majority of detainees are in our care as a result of external and internal factors in their lives. 

It is also these factors that will determine their behaviour within custody, their future offending and their vulnerability as future victims.

The period they are in custody represents an opportunity for us to engage with them, and this shouldn't be lost. Custody staff should either create a relationship with them, develop it, or identify and understand their needs and the risk they pose to themselves and/or our communities. 

I am not suggesting that within the 24 hours individuals spend in police custody we can achieve that but there is an opportunity to ensure we can secure intelligence and information and develop a personal relationship. 

Moving away from the impact on individuals, the positive impact on  society in correctly engaging a detainee throughout the period we are in contact with them can be significant. 

An effectively used period in custody can have a massive impact on the detainee's co-operation, not just with the custody staff but also the police and wider criminal justice system.

I am fortunate to have some excellent colleagues in our local prison, with whom I have been able to arrange focus groups to be undertaken with prisoners who have been through our custody centres.

Taking a leaf from the private sector around the "voice of the customer", this has provided an excellent insight into the impact not just of the infrastructure but of every individual within it. 

EU studies have shown that if we can divert an offender away from offending, the average one-time offender would have, by the time they die, contributed more than €200,000 worth of "value" to society each. Those who we cannot engage and manage away from crime will in their life time have cost society up to €2.4m euros each.

Delivering justice

If you have never been in the role it is very difficult to understand the day-to-day pressure involved in the operational management of a police custody facility. 

The respect that custody sergeants and staff receive is rightly earned.   Effectively managing a custody suite to achieve the desired "panopticon of surveillance" means there is by definition a great drive towards being very internally focused and short-termist. To put it mildly a detention officer often doesn't have much time to look outside the system at the wider picture.

But in regard to furthering of the interests of justice, "how" we operate custody suites is where the biggest opportunities remain. Improvements can be made through use of technology, procedural changes or investment in "point solutions". But in the first instance, improvements can be made simply through a re-assessment of strategic intent, and the principles and policies that derive from this.

The simplified custody revenue costs for a period of detention average around £175-£225 per detainee per period in custody (normally up to 24 hours).

On top of that we have to add the cost of the arresting officers' time off the streets. If at the end of their period of detention, we haven't got to the "truth of the matter" being investigated, or the activity underpinning the reason for the arrest, then in my view it is an expensive way of not furthering justice. It is clearly recognised that the use of police custody for deterrence ("scaring straight") does not work. 

It is also widely understood that the role of police custody is not for punishment, either directly or indirectly, and that restitution is the sole remit of the courts and the national offender management infrastructure.

My focus groups with detainees has allowed me to understand the tensions that exist within a custody process, and as professionals it is for us to manage those tensions for the benefit of all stakeholders.

That means we have a corporate duty (as an individual) towards the detainee, regardless of their reason for being in custody. Even if they have been through the criminal justice system before, at the point they are in our care they have not been found guilty. 

We also need them to co-operate with us for the purpose of our investigation. To achieve this there are three main areas  - compliance, engagement and recognition  - that will need to be addressed. If we focus on these areas the following can be made possible:

    •    Achieving a high compliance would avoid risks of suicides, assaults and serious injury to all parties, which are costly and impact on all sides

    •    Achieving good engagement would potentially ensure we obtain a greater level of information and intelligence that could be used to protect our communities from harm and indeed assist us and criminal justice partners in managing their own future offending.

    •    Achieving recognition could manifest itself in an admission to the offence, a guilty plea that would save a victim having to be subjected to a trial and for an officer would save many hours of unnecessary paperwork, or could see greater engagement with any court order.


Proposed new ways of working could see a greater appreciation of an individual detainee's needs - both as a result of the risk assessment we do on every individual that comes into custody but also through our greater engagement throughout their period in custody.

Every detainee at the point of arrest will be, to some degree, in a period of crisis, and the arrest has meant that some matters in their personal life will remain outstanding (and indeed will build in significance) during their period in detention. 

It will be these matters that, until addressed, will often be the detainee's focus at a time when we are trying to get them to focus on what we wish to discuss with them. 

From the focus groups with prisoners it is clear that detainees will be wanting to ensure their family know they are ok and what is likely to happen to them. Also they are keen to understand what will happen during their detention and the timeframes. This doesn't change for subsequent arrests, as each detention is different expectations need to be managed. 

Poor information and expectation management is one of the top reasons prisoners gave for non-compliance during their detention, and non-engagement during interview.   

Detainees' priorities and our priorities are different, and effectively managing that to a resolution is in my opinion one of the core roles of the custody manager. 

It is this that will ensure that by the time the interviewing officer wishes to talk about the matter in hand, the detainee is "fit" to do so, will have had the opportunity to focus on that and we have provided the best opportunity and the best environment to do that. 

For the detainee, being mentally ready for interview also includes consideration of presentation, how they will be seen and how they present themselves.

There is a recognition that all of us would want to be clean, presentable and not distracted by how we come across in an interview, be that an interview for a job, or for a criminal offence. 

While all forces comply with the rights and entitlements that are rightly enshrined and already being delivered routinely up and down the country, it is how they are offered and delivered that makes a fundamental difference to those spoken to. 

Often detainees shower in the morning. They may have been awake for eight hours and have had two meals before being interviewed. An opportunity to freshen up, while not required, does make a big difference to individuals.  

Other factors in the custody process that can alienate a detainee include the following: 

    •    Having completed the paperwork on entering custody, the detainee is placed into a cell with no sense of time and no understanding of when the next period of activity will be.


    •    There will be a sense of isolation, and also all the external fears, concerns and worry remain exacerbated by incarceration.


    •    There is no understanding of time (most won't have their watches and there are no clocks visible).


    •    There are infrequent visits, and the understanding of the detainee around when and why they are undertaken and for what purpose would be unclear. Visits are undertaken for safeguarding purposes, not per se to provide something for the detainee, so they can see them as unproductive despite them being so critical for custody staff.


    •    Food, drink and washing are all that provide structure and escape, giving a chance for engagement, discussion, questions around progress and a sense of time and journey. These become really key moments for the detainee.


    •    The only control within the cell is over one's own person within the cell, or through making requests to the detention officers and/or "causing the detention officers to make contact with them" (often through disruptive behaviour).


    •    At some point after what is a period of isolation (degree, impact and duration varies), the detainee is taken into an interview room, and suddenly in their mind becomes the sole focus of attention again. Often, having been on their own for a period of time and feeling disengaged, this is sufficient grounds in their mind for a less than productive relationship to develop between interviewing officer and detainee. It is at this point, if the detainee has felt that he has not been listened to, or not been able to have any control, or hasn't felt engaged by the process, they can regain control through what could be seen by the interviewing officer as disruptive or negative behaviour.


Interviews are not undertaken in a vacuum, and moving forward I would offer that a key part of custody is essentially in preparing for the interview through appropriate detainee management, in the same way as the interviewing officer prepares by understanding the case. The detainee has already had their liberty taken away, is in a controlled and segregated environment and is already under restriction. 

Seeking to impose greater restrictions which then could adversely impact on the interview and furtherance of justice is self-defeating.

A new way of working: From custody to detainee management

Emerging findings from the US show that improvements in the engagement of detainees have reduced adverse incidents such as self harm and attacks on staff in some facilities by up to 90 per cent. 

There are 26,000 detainees per annum across the two forces I work for. Any death or serious injury will conservatively cost upwards of £800k per significant incident.

Better engagement has other benefits. If we had 10 per cent more admissions by detainees in interview, it would see upwards of 3,000 more victims getting justice more quickly, not having to give evidence and not be subjected to a trial. 

It would also seek to secure support for the offender through the imposition of sentences and court orders more quickly, reducing the window of opportunity for continued offending. 

In addition it would save £825k in officer time completing additional paperwork and put more officers back on the streets to protect our communities.

We have started the journey at the recent refresher training for new detainee managers (what were custody sergeants). In addition to the continual skills uplifts on the key topics of 'Safer Detention", "PACE 1984", "APP" etc, we have focused on supporting their application of tailoring the delivery of rights and entitlements to each detainee with immediate effect. 

Within the first month we have seen examples of:

    •    Colleagues agreeing a meal, drink and washing timing plan with an individual who previously has caused significant disruption during periods of detention so he had some focus and "control" over something. It was found he felt less inclined to disrupt and the detention passed without incident.  Previously, he has had to have a police officer come off the streets and sit with him constantly to avoid him disrupting the entire custody block.


    •    Colleagues recognised that a detainee hadn't washed or eaten within a reasonable period before arrest, so following booking in was immediately offered food, drink and a shower before being taken to his cell. This individual who in the past has self-harmed and damaged cells and property did not cause any damage or have any adverse incident having felt respected and given some self respect.


    •    We are starting to see greater engagement after we have started offering the opportunity for a wash, brushing one's teeth and a having a drink before interviews, so detainees feel presentable.


    •    A frequent re-offender who usually presents challenges in custody was looking at a remand to court and a prison sentence. By providing access to speak to family to settle his affairs, for the extended duration over the weekend he was fully compliant with all requests, at a period of peak demand when the cells are at their busiest and any additional disruption becomes a challenge and causes significant risk.

As we develop this, we truly believe that we can be detainee-centric whilst enhancing our victim focus, building stronger and more cohesive communities and ensuring value for money from our finite resources.