When someone is arrested, they are taken to a custody suite.
We have three in South Yorkshire – at the central police stations on College Road in Doncaster and Churchfields in Barnsley, and at Shepcote Lane, near the M1, for Sheffield and Rotherham. As Police and Crime Commissioner, one of my responsibilities is to ensure that those who are detained are properly treated. It is, after all, a serious matter to take away someone’s liberty.
The process starts as soon as the custody sergeant accepts whoever the arresting officer brings in. This may not be everyone. In 2021, for instance, the sergeant turned 39 juveniles (10-18 yrs) away, proposing a more appropriate course of action. The detainee is then informed of their rights and their immediate welfare needs are assessed. At some point a statement must be taken and a solicitor informed. If they are a juvenile, they will have a named detention officer, their parents or guardians must be notified and an appropriate adult brought in when any statement is made. (We had a dozen 12 year olds in 2021.)
Detainees could be in the cell for a long time – the average wait is about 9 hours – so they need to be fed and supplied with magazines to read: there is no television. And they will need to be observed at intervals. The national requirement is after 6 hours, then 9; but in South Yorkshire the target is four. Juveniles are observed every half an hour. Juveniles are processed more quickly and police try not to keep anyone in custody overnight. But it can be very hard to find a suitable bed for the night for young people – a local authority responsibility.
Detainees must be treated with respect. At this stage they have not been found guilty of any crime, and may never be. Everything has to be carefully recorded.
So how do I monitor what happens in the custody suites?
Before the pandemic I relied on a group of volunteers called Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs). They went into custody suites to observe and check. But when visits were for a while suspended we had to do things differently – remotely. So a member of my staff scrutinised on a regular basis a sample of the records that have to be kept on each person detained. It has turned out to be a very useful way of checking. We can see whether there is consistent recording. We can see whether everything that should be done has been done – or at least we can see whether it has been recorded as being done – and if there is no record, we can follow up by asking.
While we will probably continue to do this, it could never wholly replace the vital work of having people visit because the ICVs need to look into the cells and speak to the detainees, the police and detention officers. So last Friday, Sally Parkin from my office, who organises the ICVs, brought them together for the first time since the pandemic and I was able to meet them.
As well as our experienced ICVs we now have some new volunteers as well. And they are a most interesting mix of people – male and female, mainly relatively young, from all walks of life and from various parts of the county – though we remain a little light on volunteers from Barnsley.
They were introduced to the new head of custody, Chief Inspector Lee Dowswell, and his deputy, Inspector Anton Menzies. CI Dowswell told the ICVs, ‘You are the conscience on my shoulder.’ They also met others whom they might come across when they visit – the Liaison and Diversion teams and Plan B Navigators.
Liaison and Diversion staff pick up those detainees who have very particular or complex needs to see whether they can be helped – those, for instance, who have issues with accommodation, drugs, alcohol or with their mental health. The Navigators work with those who are involved in serious violence – principally knife incidents. They offer to help them break with the habits of violent behaviour and turn their life round. The Navigators have found that this time of enforced reflection in a custody suite cell does sometimes lead people to being open to other possibilities – it is what the Navigators call a ‘reachable’ or ‘teachable’ moment. As one such person once told me, ‘I realised that I didn’t want my children to spend the rest of their life visiting me in prison.’
Our teams of independent custody visitors are beginning their work anew, some for the first time. They will go in pairs to the custody suites, unannounced and at a time of day or night that suits them, to ensure that all who are detained there, whether adult or child, are being treated well. I thank them for all they do and wonder whether anyone else who reads this blog might care to join them. Especially from Barnsley.
This digital world
I was interviewed this week by two of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Constabulary. They are looking at how prepared forces are across the country for dealing with digital forensic work. Digital forensics can embrace everything from DNA to the internet, some of which is dealt with at a regional level and some locally. This is a hugely important matter because the world we are now in is a digital world. This is not the future, but the present; and there will be no turning back. Criminals, for instance, are increasingly pursuing their activities online and 54% of all crime is already cyber related. Criminals are even building up their assets and hiding them this way – through crypto currency.
I wanted to assure the inspectors that in South Yorkshire we understand the need for a digital police force and the necessity of investing in it. In one sense all policing is now digital anyway. Every police officer depends on a mobile device of some kind for both recording and receiving information. Every police force has to get better and quicker at receiving information digitally – cctv, data on mobile phones or clips from body worn cameras, for example – assessing its relevance and presenting it in court. Every force needs analysts who can trawl through acres of data and help officers to understand types or patterns of crime in their area, to identify trends and predict developments.
Digital policing is not some discrete area of police work but the water in which everyone swims. As I look to the future I see a hopeful sign and some danger.
The hopeful sign is the fact that the force is changing very rapidly – because we are having to recruit so many new officers. They may lack experience but they are not intimidated by technology. This is their world. Experience will come over time, but I have no doubt that they will adapt to changing technology with an ease that other generations find a constant struggle. The modern detective in particular will need to be both confident around technology while having the attention to detail and professional curiosity that makes for a good investigator. (I’m afraid Inspector Morse would fall at the first hurdle.)
The danger is being able to retain in the police service those – mainly staff – who spend their days digitally – interrogating and analysing data. They are highly skilled and those skills are valued beyond policing, not least in the private sector. We need to encourage in them pride and satisfaction in working for the public good. Police staff are rarely seen by the general public but their work is every bit as crucial for keeping us safe as a high visibility jacket on main street.
Let them eat cake
I attended a function at Sheffield Town Hall on Friday and spoke to Councillor Sioned-Mair Richards, who will become the next Lord Mayor in May. She said she hopes to invite into the Lord Mayor’s Parlour each week children from local primary schools, giving them tea and cake. She wants them to grow up knowing that they too are citizens and the Town Hall is just as much their building as anyone else’s.
I have heard many excuses down the years for eating cake, but this is surely the best.
Stay safe and well.