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July 19, 2020

Unnecessary arrest?

A lot of policy and guidance is never followed, nor its ignoring challenged. During the pandemic, police chiefs asked forces to use police custody only as a last resort. But I’m not convinced police behaviour changed that much. I observed magistrates’ courts in London in April and May and saw many cases which didn’t seem to accord with the guidance. I saw two young men accused of being in the wrong place – they had breached criminal behaviour orders not to be in a particular locality – and a young black man who had been arrested for possession of a small amount of cannabis. At least half of those whom the police had detained were freed by the court – the court didn’t agree that the risk merited deprivation of the defendants’ liberty.

I also heard from defence lawyers that the kind of charges they were dealing with were normal, not a new normal – if the guidance had been followed lawyers should only have been dealing with very serious crimes and/or cases where victims were at great risk of further harm. But they said they were dealing with the same kind of police custody cases as usual. I contacted a lawyer who had posted about a client arrested for criminal damage for putting a defrosted piece of chicken next to a frozen one. She also told me about another much more serious case where arrest and detention seemed to have been used inappropriately. A couple (Tracie and Nigel) were in dispute with relatives and were accused by them of harassment. A few days after the alleged incident the local police asked Tracie and Nigel to fix an appointment at the police station to be interviewed. Voluntary interviews allow the police to prepare their evidence and line of questioning and for defendants to answer police questions without being detained.

Tracie and Nigel had contacted their lawyers to ask them to schedule the voluntary interview. So its not clear why the police jumped the gun and went to their flat to arrest them and take them to custody. Tragically Tracie collapsed as she was being arrested (not because of it) and the police then ordered an ambulance to take her to hospital. Instead of letting her husband Nigel go with her to hospital, they put him in a secure van to the custody suite, booked him in and kept him there for several hours as Tracie lay dying in hospital. He was released and was with her when she died – of a bleed on the brain.

Tracie’s death is undoubtedly a tragic accident, but the context is troubling, particularly in the pandemic. It looks as if there was no urgent need for Tracie and Nigel to be arrested. The alleged incident had happened days before and what had actually happened was heavily disputed. The couple were willing to be interviewed voluntarily to explain their side of the story. There was no evidence that any alleged victim was in immediate danger from Tracie and Nigel…And then to take Nigel into custody when his wife had collapsed seems even more unnecessary, if not inhumane.

Of all those detained in police custody, most are not charged – in fact figures from 14 police forces suggest that only a third are charged. And while detainees are imprisoned, they have no access to their mobile phones and cannot of course leave of their own free will – stressful at the best of times. Many detainees who are not charged are NFAed (no further action), as Nigel in the end was.

Nigel and Tracie were from the Roma community. Members of the community (like many other ethnic communities) are disproportionately likely to be arrested, detained and charged

This story is covered by Lizzie Dearden in today’s Independent. Our report on the overuse of police custody is here.

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