by John Kendall, PhD Visiting Scholar, Birmingham Law School, author of Regulating police detention: Voices from behind closed doors (Policy Press: 2018: https://policypress.co.uk/regulating-police-detention)
What is custody visiting?
The little-known Independent Custody Visiting Scheme facilitates volunteers to make random and unannounced visits to custody blocks in police stations. The volunteer visitors check on the welfare of detainees and report to their local Police and Crime Commissioner. Custody visitors are the only outsiders to make regular visits to detainees in their cells. But the power of the police, and official policy, prevent them from making independent and effective scrutiny of what is going on in custody. 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 the minimum of trouble.
What is custody like?
Custody blocks are the places where the hundreds of thousands of people who have been arrested each year are processed and may be kept there for up to 96 hours. The police say the primary purpose of detention in custody is to make the suspect “amenable” to investigation.The police have wide discretion in how they operate custody. There is very little regulation except self-regulation, and what the police do there is largely invisible to the outside world. Those who are detained in custody run the risk of being abused by the police, whatever the extent of any actual abuse, and some lose their lives. However, the authorities have airbrushed out the idea that custody visiting could be a deterrent to police misconduct that might lead to deaths in custody.
How I came to write this book
I previously worked as a commercial solicitor and mediator. In retirement,I had an interest in finding out about custody, but had no intention at that stage of writing about custody visiting, so I joined a local scheme and worked as a visitor for three years. I searched, in vain, for academic analysis of the scheme, so I decided to write about it myself, but I realised that I would not be able to do so without academic help.Ithenundertook a research project at the University of Birmingham, centred on a case study (in a different area from the one I had worked in) where I had access to visitors, custody blocks, the police and, crucially, to detainees. I contend that the findings of my case study can be applied widely to visiting schemes in other parts of England and Wales: all are subject to the same statutory scheme of visiting, the same statutory framework for custody, and behind that common formal structure lies the unchanging, fundamental power imbalance between the police and the visitors.
To do their job properly, custody visitors need to be independent, but the structure of the scheme makes that impossible. The visitors are recruited and managed by the local Police and Crime Commissioner, who is also required by statute to perform the impossible conjuring trick of ensuring that they are independent both of the police and the Commissioner. Visitors who cause trouble can be dismissed, many do not keep their distance from the police, the training they receive is mono-culturally from the police’s point of view, and the visitors fail to challenge the police. And when it came to the most important, defining issue of deaths in custody, almost all the visitors I interviewed thought their work had very little to do with it.
I found that the visits took place at predictable times, and never during the night. Neither the existence nor the operation of the visiting scheme made any significant impact on police behaviour. The Police and Crime Commissioner gave no useful information to the public about the work of the scheme. I found that the police did not respect the visiting scheme and that the detainees did not trust the visitors. The visiting work does not meet international human rights obligations. Custody visiting is probably counterproductive, because it obscures the need for proper, effective regulation.
With extensive and radical reforms, custody visiting could make a much more effective contribution to the regulation of police detention. This book should show politicians and the public that the visiting scheme lacks legitimacy. When that is appreciated, there would be pressure for these reforms. In the words of Sir Stephen Sedley, former Lord Justice of Appeal: “This study should alert everyone concerned with the tension between authority and liberty”.