Footballs, jigsaws and colouring in police cells – a guest blog on ‘distraction tecnhiques’


October 21, 2019

Guest Blog - Devon and Cornwall Police

My name is Becky Davies and I am a Sergeant with Devon and Cornwall Police currently working within Exeter custody. Over the past seven years I have undertaken work within mental health and worked with the NHS and Mind Charity, predominantly in relation to staff wellbeing. Moving into the custody environment gave me the opportunity to branch out and explore how we can better support the mental wellbeing of individuals coming through the custody environment.

Custody is a place where, historically, items are removed from those coming into the units and then they are placed in a cell with very little other than a mattress and a pillow, and four plain walls to stare at. This is changing, as research comes forward to show the damage this may be doing.

Yes, the threshold for arrest is higher than it used to be. Yes, there is a possibility the person has committed the offence they are alleged to have and some of these offences are very serious. But this is only part of the picture, there are often many complex reasons why these individuals have come into custody and potentially committed crime.

A significant proportion of them have communication difficulties, the figure for young people coming through the youth offending teams is 90%. Be it through a learning difficulty, lack of access to education, autism or for some other reason. A significant number have experienced trauma during their early life and into adulthood, and the custody environment can re-traumatise. Many have experienced substance abuse, homelessness and mental health problems as a result. Unless something changes for them, they get stuck in an endless cycle within the criminal justice system.

We recognised this some time ago, evidenced by the presence of other professionals based in custody units such as nurses, doctors, mental health practitioners and housing officers. This is a significant step forward but if individuals are unable to engage with these services during their time in custody, having them there may not be as effective as we had hoped. If you have someone with some form of emotional dysregulation and/or neuro-sensitivity who is less able to listen or converse with these services, they will remain trapped in the cycle.

In early 2019, I noticed that our mental health practitioners had a ‘stretch ball’ in their office which they would occasionally ask me if they could give to a detainee, usually because they were anxious to help them with breathing or autistic to help with communication. I would risk assess the detainee against the item and usually agree. I noticed how effective they could be and how they helped to reduce panic attacks, self-harm and improve communication. An idea was born.

During the summer of 2019 my colleagues and I risk assessed and introduced foam footballs, mindful colouring and jigsaw puzzles to the custody environment. I have just finished an interim evaluation which indicates the items have been well received and are effective. Detainees report their anxiety levels have come down helping them to distract from what is in front of them and better engage with the custody process. Anecdotally leading to less self-harm, use of force and other high demand behaviours. We now enter the next phase of the initiative with plans to conduct an assessment of the custody environment by occupational therapists to see what else we can introduce and carry out a full scale critical evaluation of the initiative in 2020.

We have so far shared our interim evaluation with detail of our risk assessment process with 16 other force areas and intend to share this trauma informed practice, as far and as wide as we can.

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