Gonzo Blogging – Embedded with the Inspectorates


August 22, 2017

  • criminal justice


I am starting to write this blog in a hotel embedded within the HMICFRS/HMIP inspection team, sleep deprived, but fuelled by hotel coffee and curiousity. I have spent 16 of the last 24 hours working on a police custody inspection. My mind is spinning with the things that I have seen, heard and smelled over the past few days and I cannot help, but think about Hunter S. Thompson and his Gonzo journalism (I was somewhere around Peterborough, at the edge of the A1, when the coffee began to take hold). Does Gonzo blogging exist? If so, this is the closest that I will ever come.

Unlike the Gonzo writers of the past, I cannot comment on the details on what I have seen in custody itself. I will wait for my colleagues in the inspectorates to publish their report. I can tell you my personal experiences and how I think that ICV schemes can interact with this process to get better outcomes for detainees. Not quite Hunter S. Thompson, but that’s probably for the best.

I have shadowed some remarkable people this week. I have been reunited with an old UKNPM colleague, committed to joined up work.  I have shared insights with a nurse who has a PhD and has exceptional knowledge of health matters. Both she and another amazing woman have taught me a lot about emotional intelligence – when to tread carefully and when to throw caution to the wind. I have talked, at length, with two wonderful inspectors to explore use of force and management of risk. They have worked tirelessly to make sure that, in some horribly difficult situations, everyone has their dignity and humanity respected. I have seen incredible leadership – inspectorate leads that have encouraged me to speak, seen through the emotion of my responses, but properly listened to what I have said and acted upon it. They have repeatedly reinstated their commitment to taking the police with them on this journey, of giving them useful tools to work with. I will take away a lot from the week and will seek to emulate much of the behaviour I’ve witnessed. Particularly that of Norma Collicott, HMIC’s lead inspector, and those who I have spent most time shadowing – Fionn and Kellie.

I have been on the other side of inspections – the panic of the announcement, the gathering of evidence, deciding how to present your views. I had never considered those sat on the other side of the table, but let me tell you, they are an impressive bunch. I have been awake for so long because I went to see the early van picking up detainees for court; I came back so late because we wanted to gather more evidence and because we needed to talk about what we’d seen. I am just here for one inspection. The team conducts nine a year – two weeks away from home each time. Two weeks in areas they don’t know, driving for miles. Custody suites seem to be particularly difficult to park at or near. Yet every single inspector I have seen arrives at custody or at a desktop ready to work. They are observant, objective and give attention to detail. Everyone works their socks off. Everyone is interested and engaged in the work that they are carrying out and wants to do a good job. The dedication and strength is exceptional.

Aside from being personally awestruck and discombobulated – this matters. It matters because the inspections are robust. They are valid. I go to lots of schemes where the local team may question feedback. I feel completely assured and confident to state that every single finding is triangulated, proven and considered. These reports hit the nail on the head and that matters. I will defend and promote the research in these reports.

Ultimately, though, I am not here to experience custody or take leadership lessons. I am here to understand the inspection process and how ICV scheme reports can form a valuable and effective part of this. We are UKNPM partners with the inspectorates. They conduct deep dives and explorations of custody every few years; ICVs report in less detail, but visit weekly. I will work on this, but I have a few ideas, with thanks to Alasdair, manager of the local custody visiting scheme, for helping me to develop these:

Preparing for the inspection

Inspectors come onto site and start to visit custody, check files and speak to staff right away. This is a great form of explorative research, and the first part of a robust process. However, it does take a while to start to uncover the main issues within custody. ICVs have a different role, but should have picked up on key strategic issues over the years beforehand. I would like to suggest key areas and issues for schemes to report on in their annual report. Inspectors can access this in advance and it can start to give them some initial pointers to explore.

Scheme managers often will not have taken part in an inspection before, they won’t know what to expect, what people are looking for, what the structure of the experience will look like and what can happen after the inspection is closed. Norma has repeatedly said that inspections can be viewed as free consultancy. I agree and need to share that perspective with scheme managers. I would like to develop an information pack that HMICFRS/HMIP could share with scheme managers upon arrival. This will help to calm the process and make the most of it.

During the inspection

Scheme managers are routinely interviewed as part of the inspection. They aren’t always aware of what they’ll be asked, how long it will take, what the information will be used for. I would like to encourage scheme members to take a look through their reports for the months preceding an inspection. I’d like to give them a template to prepare for the interview and an opportunity to convey the key information that both they, and the inspectorate, would like to hear about. The template should be easy for the scheme managers to complete and give the inspectorate a very clear and concise summary of the important issues that the ICVs, as members of the community, have picked up.

Following inspection

The inspection is an incredible opportunity to understand the detailed picture of what custody looks like in a police force area. However, in isolation, it can be difficult for scheme managers to understand how their reports compare to other areas and which recommendations they should focus on. They will not know what is common practice across all other areas, what should raise a red flag as unusual or how to overcome local challenges. I send brief summaries of each inspection to all scheme managers in our member newsletters, but I can build on this. ICVA is in a privileged position in that we visit an awful lot of custody suites. I want to speak to each scheme manager after every inspection, just briefly, to talk about the recommendations. I’d like to highlight anything that stands out as unusual; I’d like to talk through local priorities and how ICVs can contribute to monitoring of the implementation of recommendations. I feel that this is a way that ICVA can really add value to local schemes and that ICVs can add value to their custody suites.

The inspectorates return to look at action plans. I am sure that there is a way that scheme managers can link into this too. I need to think it through, but I have contacts in the inspectorate who are kindly going to help me on this and set up processes. I would love to know what others think, please let me know as we develop our ideas.

The people that I have worked with are clever, engaged, interested, accomplished people. They are also self-deprecating, funny and keen to develop and share new ideas. I have absolutely loved my time in the team. I am sure that we can develop new ways of working that make our collective efforts far more effective. It has also changed me as a person – a real paradigm shift in how I view my colleagues and, moreover, my own behaviour. To end, on the obscure manner in which I started – I shall quote Thomas Wolfe: “you can’t go home again.” I will go back to work changed and ICVA will change. I am so grateful for this experience. Thank you to everyone who welcomed me.