“Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.” Philip Larkin.
Kindness is so important, isn’t it? We all rely on the kindness of others to muddle through life as best we can. Police custody is no different.
I was fortunate to see a presentation by Dr. Layla Skinns on her ‘good police custody study’ earlier this month. Dr. Skinns is developing good practice benchmarks that articulate the results of her five-year project. She explained the detainee perspective, exploring what makes custody ‘good’ for detainees (the staff perspective will follow). Her message was loud and clear – detainees value being treated as a person. They value being treated with kindness, humanity, being spoken to politely and staff responding to their needs.
This makes sense to me. I see detainees in custody because they have made a drunken mistake, a more serious mistake, because something bad has happened or simply because the police need to speak to them before no further action is taken. If I put myself in the detainees’ shoes, I would value kindness more than anything.
This brings me onto my visit to my visit to Thames Valley. I have a long and positive history with the force. Indeed, the photo for this post includes their Superintendent and I at a joint media appearance. I value the staff that I work with there, but also wanted to see how things worked in custody and whether the proactive and thoughtful leadership I know was reflected on the ground.
Starting with a walk-around
I arrived before morning handover and joined the Sergeant for his first walk-around of the shift. The Sergeant did not know of Dr. Skinns work, but he hit the nail on the head in this early task. We know that detainees are pained by the uncertainty of the process, by not knowing the time, by lack of contact with the outside world; the Sergeant knew this too, from years of experience on the job. As he introduced himself to detainees he checked how they were feeling, told them the time, listened to their concerns and sought to update them on likely timescales whilst offering them breakfast. I mentally ticked off the many ways he was naturally easing the pains of police custody; Dr. Skinns would be pleased.
The initial walkabout didn’t ease all of the Sergeant’s concerns. I could see that he was bothered by some ‘unknowns’ that meant he could not have a grip on the needs and risks associated with all of the detainees in his care. Professional curiosity, a drive to explore and understand a situation, is so important to keep people safe. The Sergeant and his team set to do everything that they could to understand the needs of the detainee and their research paid off. They found what turned out to be a range of risks to the detainee and public. I was impressed.
It’s not unusual to see detention officers with scrapes and bruises. These were notably absent in the staff in this suite. I spoke to a detention officer about this and he really got into discussing the art of de-escalation.
He described how he was able to talk to different detainees to build rapport and calm them down as well as when to draw boundaries. I saw this, too, when detainees were treated with respect throughout the shift. There seemed to be an assumption that detainees were calm people, to be treated as such, unless they proved otherwise. They were treated with the same courtesy as staff and stakeholders. Detainees were able to keep their own clothes (subject to risk) as removing them would cause unnecessary distress. There was not a paper suit to be seen. A child’s detention was carefully planned and they spent it in a decent side room, sat with their Appropriate Adult. Another detainee had to wait ten minutes to get his photo etc. processed and was able to sit in a holding room, opposite the desk, door open, no police guard and talking to staff. Detainees were given care and courtesy as they were booked out, sometimes delivering advice and support that would help prevent a return visit.
I have no doubt that staff knew what to do if situations like this escalated and detainees got violent. They confidently spoke about using force if needed, but also saw this as a ‘rare event’ that should not occur routinely.
This kind of atmosphere does not happen by accident. Arresting officers would come to brief custody staff as they planned their arrest and subsequent detention. As they returned from arrest, they briefed custody staff on the mood of the detainee, likely flashpoints and how to respond. It seemed that courtesy beget courtesy and I am confident that this type of environment simply prevented problems occurring.
ICVA has done a lot of work on care of female detainees and I spent some time with the female detention officer on shift. She was great. I was happy to hear that the suite always has a female detention officer on shift. I was even happier to see her passion for making sure female detainees got solid care. She was able to show me a range of tampons, towels, wipes, changes of clothes and towels to keep menstruating detainees feeling comfortable and dignified. As I relayed observations from other areas that refused to use tampons or didn’t proactively offer support, she was rightly outraged. I’m not sure that I could ask for more.
As the shift progressed, I managed to speak to the team about their recent inspection and about the problems we have been working on elsewhere. A second sergeant simply responded ‘that doesn’t sound kind’. The other talked of a time when he’d let a detainee keep a sentimentally valuable ring on as removing it (which almost certainly would have involved force) would cause more distress and harm than anything the detainee could have done left with the ring.
I gave a happy sigh at that moment.
So, back to Larkin, kindness is incredibly important and even more so in custody. My visit showed me how kindness to detainees made custody safer, how it eased all processes and moved justice on swiftly.
I wished that Dr. Skinns had been there too, and promised to share her presentation with them. The team at Thames Valley demonstrated good custody in all they did and were the embodiment of all her research had taught us.
(As an epilogue, the inspectorates have just published their inspection report on Thames Valley. They, too, gave a positive report and highlighted some of the great work underway).