Dignity, decency, legality: Making police custody ‘good’?

Dr Layla Skinns

Across England and Wales, upwards of 900,000 citizens are arrested and detained in police custody each year, making it an important site for everyday interactions between the public and the police. Police custody is where a suspect is taken on arrest after an allegation of law-breaking, whilst an investigation is mounted and a decision is reached about what to do next, for example, whether to charge them or bail them. It is also a place in which the police and civilian detention officers who work in police custody must keep a highly vulnerable suspect population safe, as a result of a range of needs including mental and physical health conditions, addiction and intoxication, learning disabilities and gender-specific needs, all of which may be exacerbated by their detention. Drawing on my experiences of a recent ESRC-funded study, I critically reflect here on why making police custody ‘good’ was and continues to be an important objective for the research.

My interest in this formally began in 2011, during what I called ‘Phase 0’ of the research, in which I had initial conversations with key stakeholders and colleagues about the possibilities of making police custody ‘good’. This was my first foray into thinking appreciatively about the possibilities and not just the pitfalls of police custody for those who are detained or work therein. These were not always easy conversations to have and some did not lead to the desired outcomes (Greene and Skinns, 2018). I nonetheless persevered. This appreciative framing of the ‘good’ police custody study – which was subsequently granted funding by the ESRC in 2012 and commenced in 2013 – was not based on a set of naïve and over-optimistic assumptions about the nature of police custody. I had by this point already spent a number of years researching in police custody settings in England and in other jurisdictions and was fully cognisant of how grim, brutalising, dehumanising, demoralising and stigmatising police detention can be, at its worst, with these effects often being felt by the most vulnerable members of society and also to some extent by staff (Skinns, 2019).

However, I was also conscious that it was time to change tack. Yes, there is a lot at stake. For suspects, their safety, well-being, fair treatment and access to justice are at stake and, for the police, their legitimacy and the integrity of the criminal justice process. There is also therefore much that can go seriously wrong, whether a death or a serious injury or a miscarriage of justice or a sense of exclusion from society. Nonetheless, my overarching research question in the ‘good’ police custody study, was concerned with the circumstances in which police custody might be ‘good’ and ‘good’ for whom, particularly in light of the growing role for civilian detention officers and for the private sector (Skinns et al., 2017). This question reflected a theoretical set of interests in conceptualising the meaning of good police custody and, by implication, good police work, but it was also about trying to make a difference, through the impact of the research on the lived realities of those who are detained and who work in police custody.

After five years, three research phases and the collection of a range of qualitative and quantitative data, the research is now reaching its concluding phases. My colleagues and I are also now starting to articulate the meaning of ‘good’ police custody. Based largely on the data collected in Phase 3 in which the research team surveyed nearly 800 staff and detainees in 27 custody suites in 13 forces, three main sets of findings stand out, linked to dignity, decency and legality, with the first two of these concepts also being deeply affected by material conditions, that is, whether police detention facilities are seen as bright, light, spacious and as if someone cares about these surroundings. This suggests that police custody can be made ‘good’ when dignity – linked to equality and decency – is prioritised by police custody practitioners, managers, national leads and policy makers in relation to the operation and strategic direction of police custody, alongside the existing focus on abiding by the legal rules such as of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the associated Codes of Practice.

These ideas are central to the well-received good practice benchmarks which police stakeholders from across England and Wales were consulted on in November 2018 (see here for the draft version). These are due to be finalised in May 2019 and then implemented and evaluated in four police force areas from the autumn onwards. The appreciative framing of the research has helped to provide traction for the ideas it has generated, at a time when large numbers of police forces are under pressure and constrained by limited resources. The research has also enabled the identification of a set of aspirations and practices that we should expect to see in order to make police custody ‘good’. I am hopeful therefore that the research is poised to make a difference, including to the treatment of and material conditions in which some of the most marginalised groups in society are held. This provides reason enough for wanting to make police custody ‘good’.

Layla Skinns is a Reader in Criminology at the Centre for Criminological Research, School of Law, University of Sheffield. Email: l.skinns@sheffield.ac.uk

This piece is based on data analysis completed with Dr Angela Sorsby, with additional research support from Dr Lindsey Rice, Amy Sprawson, Dr Andrew Wooff and Rivka Smith, as well as from Amal Ali, Dermot Barr and Claire Kershaw.

The ‘good’ police custody study was generously funded by the ESRC (research grant no. ES/J023434/)

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