24 Hours in Police Custody


January 9, 2020

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The recent episode of 24 Hours in Police Custody outlined a very sad and difficult case that Cambridgeshire Police dealt with.  Welcoming cameras into police custody shines a light into some of the processes and protections that take place in custody.  This transparency opens up an often closed and high-pressure area of policing.  This blog provides a little more context around what you’ve seen, and what our ICVs see, when they go into custody.

Why 24 hours?

The programme is called 24 Hours in Police Custody, but in reality time spent in custody is more complicated.

Taking a person’s liberty away is a serious thing to do and many people who are arrested will leave without charge or further action.  Police are aware of this and will aim to ensure that detainees aren’t kept for longer than is needed.  Many detainees will not spend a full 24 hours in custody and will be released much quicker than this.

That being said, police usually have 24 hours to charge a detainee with a crime or release them.  Within this period, detainees have eight hours of rest, free from questioning and travel that won’t be interrupted unless necessary and only when that interruption meets certain conditions.

Police can then apply to hold a detainee for up to 36 or 96 hours if they’re suspected of a serious crime such as murder.  Furthermore, detainees arrested under the Terrorism Act can be detained for up to 14 days.

ICVs will visit police custody and speak to detainees at different stages.  Experienced and specially trained ICVs will visit those arrested under Terrorism Legislation and will aim to do so daily over this extended period of time.

Whilst, on TV, it can seem that police hold detainees up 23 hours 59 minutes, the reality is usually very different with detainees spending varying amounts of time in the custody suite.

Who are the people working in custody suites?

24 Hours in Police Custody often shows interviews taking place, there are often a few people in the room when these interviews take place, so who are they?

All detainees have the right to free legal advice if questioned at the station and can ask for this at any point if they initially turn this offer down.  We can see solicitors in the interview room when detainees are questioned.

ICVs will ask detainees whether they’ve been offered legal advice when they visit, this is an important safeguard for detainees and a serious issue if it’s not provided.

There may also be Appropriate Adults in the room.  Appropriate Adults are provided to detainees who are children or vulnerable adults and are in place to safeguard their interests, rights and entitlements.  They do so by ensuring that detainees are treated fairly and justly and are able to participate effectively.

Where an interview room may seem crowded, this could well be because both a solicitor and an Appropriate Adult are present alongside the detainee.

Why do you see police officers sat in the cells?

You may see a police officer sitting with a detainee in the cell, so why does this happen?

The custody sergeant or other staff will have an extended conversation with each detainee when they come into custody.  This will include a risk assessment where detainees will be questioned on key risk factors and will have an observation level set.  Where there is the highest risk of self-harm, detainees will be placed on Level 4 close proximity observations.  This means a detainee will be supervised by someone nearby in the cell who can intervene to prevent this harm if needed.  This is quite a serious level of observation, but custody can be a stressful place for detainees and it’s not uncommon to see this happening.

There are other reasons why a detainee may have a police officer in the cell with them, but close proximity observations are often seen on police TV shows.

Why do you see so many detainees in the same clothing?

Finally, you may have noticed that detainees are often in the same clothing.  This tends to be a grey tracksuit.  It may sometimes include flip flops or other shoes.  So, why is this?

Police may have to take someone’s clothes away for a number of reasons.  This could be part of the investigation.  It may be that a detainee wants or needs some clean clothes during their time in custody.  No matter the reason, police have a requirement to provide replacement clothing that is clean and comfortable.

Every custody suite that I have visited has large stocks of replacement clothing and they are almost always grey tracksuits and t shirts with some replacement shoes.  They are stored in a range of sizes to meet the needs of detainees but are almost always grey tracksuits.  This is why you are likely to see some detainees wearing similar clothes in the custody process.

24 Hours in Police Custody will be back on again soon, no doubt showing the difficult and often heartbreaking events that take place around each case.  Custody is a place of real emotion and there are lots of safeguards and processes in place to make sure that it runs well for all involved.  ICVs visit detainees and monitor custody, providing public transparency and oversight when the cameras aren’t there.