Who could have predicted even just a few months ago, what started out as just another ‘flu like’ bug, would fundamentally change the way in which the world operates. It is hard to think of any aspect of society that has not been affected, with the cruellest irony being that in times where our natural instinct is to come together with families and friends, we have instead been required to remain apart – at least physically – in an attempt to combat an enemy we still do not fully understand.
The last few months seem to have passed in a blur and meeting the challenges professionally has meant working to make some fundamental changes to practices and policies at pace; the likes of which I have not seen before.
Etched on our memories forever will be the time when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that we would all be subject to the most sweeping and freedom limiting restrictions that democracies have ever seen in peacetime. I never imagined that as a British police officer – proud to police by consent – that I would be enforcing innocent people staying at home, not seeing their loved-ones, not going to work and not socialising. The American term ‘lockdown’ is now well-used parlance that describes these conditions, which for many meant that everyday activities had to stop.
For some of us though, stopping was not an option. Our brave colleagues in policing, emergency services, the NHS and care sector (to name just a few) had to keep going in an altogether different working environment with a new and constant danger. Local resilience forums brought together leaders from across agencies, including the police service, to tackle the emerging crisis; through this period police custody started working out how to deliver business as unusual.
As the engine room for the criminal justice system, it was critical that we found a way to continue to operate in a rapidly changing situation. Previous lines of communication across forces and partner agencies were quickly reinvigorated as we sought to work together to tackle the issues. Arrest rates dipped slightly when ‘lockdown’ happened, but forces were soon making up ground, using any spare capacity brought about by a temporary drop in many crimes to make outstanding arrests; criminals still using the roads became easier to spot (in my force of Surrey we certainly saw a spike in cars trying to evade police). Fortunately, the commitment and cooperation of those making custody work was simply outstanding, but the challenge of innovating inside frameworks as rigid as those that surround custody was not easy. Guidance documents and protocols were agreed at pace and included something I never expected to see – provision, in very specific circumstances, for operating outside PACE!
I have always been a keen proponent of the work that independent custody visitors undertake in keeping our custody practice legitimate and amongst the most (maybe even the most) transparent in the world. When we were considering what functions should cease in custody to reduce the risks associated with the Covid-19, the question of how ICVs should operate was an obvious one. Periods of uncertainty and change are arguably when moreoversight is required, not less. Of course, like so many other custody functions, how this oversight could be achieved would also require some innovation.
I do understand that in some areas and circumstances, some of the duties of the ICV schemes have had to reduce or be temporarily curtailed. Equally, I am genuinely grateful to schemes that have adapted and innovated their practice and continue to do as much as they can. The reports and feedback have enabled us to evaluate the practical and ‘grass roots’ impact of the decisions we have made and the policies we have developed. We have been able to reassure ourselves where hygiene and PPE are being appropriately managed and to take action where this was not the case. We have been able to maintain our confidence that the welfare and rights of detainees are being protected. The work with ICVA at a national level (thank you Katie and Sherry), right down to the local relationships between Independent Custody Visitors, Police Custody officers and staff has been exceptional. We have, quite rightly, different perspectives and views, but we have the shared aim of ensuring those in custody are safe and properly cared for, regardless of why they maybe there and notwithstanding the pivotal role custody plays in the criminal justice process.
On behalf of police officers, staff and the public, I want to say sincerely, thank you for your work, especially during these most challenging of times
Nev Kemp QPM
Deputy Chief Constable, Surrey Police
National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for Custody and the Movement of Prisoners