Having been Surrey’s Independent Custody Visiting (ICV) Scheme Manager for the last three years, one thing I have discovered is that this job is always varied, always interesting and always unpredictable. Never has this been as true as right now! Coronavirus has certainly upped the workload and the challenge – The last four weeks have seen massive changes to how our scheme operates.
We took the decision to suspend all physical ICV visits in March for a combination of reasons – including the fact that over half our volunteers were self-isolating due to their or a family member’s health. We feel a high duty of care to the ICVs and would hate to expose them to the virus through their volunteering – we equally didn’t want an ICV to bring the virus into custody and expose what was predicted to be a stretched workforce. However, that decision couldn’t be taken lightly as Police and Crime Commissioners still have a duty to ensure public scrutiny and an overview of custody occurs. As Scheme Manager my immediate thoughts had to turn to what could custody visiting look like in this new, dynamic and rather daunting world…
My first response was to arrange some retrospective custody record reviews, this seemed like the ideal solution and most thorough check we could do on detainees and custody’s operation. It was broadly supported by all ICVs and custody officers. But then the stumbling blocks started mounting up. The fact that this approach would involve sending, albeit highly redacted, custody records on non-secure email servers to volunteers it was just not possible without seeking lengthy and costly legal advice due to data protection and GDPR issues. So I was back to the drawing board!
A new plan was formulated. Whilst not perfect and not providing the direct oversight that any of us would ideally like or are used to, it seemed like the best practicable solution and proportionate in these strange days.
So what are we doing? Every week our ICVs are making unannounced monitoring calls to each of Surrey’s custody facilities. During these calls, ICVs talk through each detainee with a Sergeant ensuring they have had their rights and entitlements met, that appropriate adults and solicitors have been called (and are available where necessary) and that custody staff are happy with hand washing and PPE provision etc. Whilst we acknowledge that this method relies on the complete honesty of the custody officer, we feel the relationship already established with Surrey Police stands us in great stead for open, fair and honest exchanges. Any concerns can be raised in the usual way, either to a more senior officer on the day or directly to me – I can then myself dip into custody records to check things out.
Logistically introducing this approach had its’ challenges, not least the speed with which we were trying to introduce a new way of working but also the need to enable a three way call. Due to data security, various video meeting platforms were ruled out and I needed the solution to be easily accessible for all. The decision was therefore made to use the PCCs dedicated conference call line – it’s tricky as I need to schedule in each meeting to ensure no clashes but this seems like the best option currently. Next was the reporting of these calls. Paper forms were immediately ruled out due to the need for postage as it could cause delays in processing the information ICVs gathered. In the rapidly changing situation we find ourselves in, delays in receiving the information wasn’t acceptable. After a quick pooling of our office brain power, the decision was made to use an online survey platform which was easy to set up and quick for me to gather the results.
We’re now two weeks into this way of working. So far, things are going very smoothly, the calls are well received and the information gathered helpful and reassuring. The ICVs are adapting to online reporting with great ease and are enjoying the opportunity to chat with the custody officers. They still feel like they are maintaining oversight of custody and in some cases breaking the potential monotony of self-isolation!
We are continually reviewing the situation and will revert back to physical visits as soon as it’s safe and practicable to do so. Right now this is the right thing for us; we have maintained a good level of oversight yet reduced the pressure on custody staff and continue to safeguard our volunteers during this difficult time . I am incredibly proud at how quickly the new solution has been adopted by both the ICVs and Surrey Police.