At ICVA, we write policy and training for Independent Custody Visitors, we assist with thematic work across this vital area of policing and also act, via our schemes and their visitors, as the voice of the detainee in terms of their experience of police custody.
To do this effectively, and to ensure that we are capturing not only the voice of the detainee but that of the staff working in what can be an incredibly tough environment it’s really important that we spend time in custody ourselves. How can we possibly expect to recommend new ways of working or to comment on practices requiring improvement with any level of authority without spending time in custody, with both its staff as well as its detainees? Of course, it’s also important to say thank you and to acknowledge the good work that goes on behind these closed doors when we see it too.
With that in mind and with a current focus for ICVA on detainee dignity, I was delighted to go along for part of a shift at Brixton Police Station recently. I was interested to hear how they manage risk in the suite, what arrangements there are for women and girls and just generally to get the feel of how a busy suite in a metropolitan area works. Brixton is a large suite, with 40 cells, and, knowing the ‘q’ word was out of bounds during my time there, it was nonetheless a fairly quiet shift (ICVA top tip – never when visiting custody use the word quiet– tends to be welcomed as much as muttering Macbeth in a theatre).
I was with one of the Custody Sgts, who although not in uniform that day was happy to spend some time with me in the suite, observing processes like booking in, welfare checks and some pre-transfer work, whilst being very patient with my almost always endless questions. I stayed for around half a shift, seeing most parts of the custody process that were appropriate for me to see, and observed a handover in the evening of one shift to the next.
What struck me about the staff at Brixton on both shifts I observed was their manner with the detainees. The suite was calm, and the detainees consistently spoken to respectfully, with good attention paid to their needs. As the Custody Sgt said when we were observing a detainee being booked in, ‘this moment is probably one of the worst, if not the worst of his life’. She was clear that kindness and empathy were key traits for keeping detainees calm at this time, and was also keen to impress that the role of the custody staff is not to judge but to ensure that the custody process is enacted in the best way for the detainees as possible. Humour was used appropriately, in particular with those detainees who were known to the staff, lessening the impact of the custody environment and almost certainly avoiding escalating behaviour in one case.
Detainees needs were considered on an individual basis, with risk questions being asked. The Metropolitan Police Service, (MPS), do not use anti-rip suits and I was interested to see how they manage detainee risk effectively. Brixton has CCTV in all cells with a bank of screens in a separate office behind the bridge. Here sits a Detention Officer, (DDO), who observes a number of cells and detainees in live time. Although not every cell is able to be viewed simultaneously the staff were confident that they could manage the custody population and the screens effectively to ensure the safety of those held there. Tracksuits were given to detainees that were at risk of harm and trainers, (if you’re the same sort of age as me they look a bit like 80’s daps for P.E.).
A reasonable stock of menstrual care products was available, cotton replacement underwear and hand sanitiser wipes. Staff reassured me that there was almost always a female member of staff on duty who women and girls could talk to, assuring me that they would get an officer from elsewhere in the station if this was not the case to ensure that this important part of PACE was met. There had been a clear focus on improving this area of custody for women and girls which was fantastic to see, and all staff were supportive of the improvements.
I like spending time in custody, there is always something new to learn, new people to meet and it reminds me of how incredibly sad it can sometimes be and why ICVs are there as another friendly face ensuring detainees get the best care possible.
The staff at Brixton made me leave with a spring in my step knowing that the care offered to some often incredibly vulnerable people is high and that they continue to strive for a safe custody suite where detainees are well looked after and leave to whatever their next steps might be in a better frame of mind then when they arrived.