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Defund police custody?

Fionnuala Ratcliffe
19 Jun 2020

Should we defund the police? The idea took one great leap into the US political mainstream last month following George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police. This radical idea makes the key ask of our new report – that police in England and Wales should detain fewer people and for less time – seem conservative in comparison.

Approximately 850,000 people were detained in police cells in England and Wales last year, for an average of 14 hours. Yet many police officers we spoke to in our research couldn’t see the need to reduce the number of adults detained, particularly pre-charge. Discussions would divert to how detainee welfare was a priority, how police custody responds to needs otherwise unmet. Police rarely say that not being detained at all might be the best thing for someone’s welfare.

One reason people can spend hours in detention is because the police don’t know what else to do with them. Mentally vulnerable people causing disturbance or distress in public, picked up by the police, may not meet the grounds for detention – detention must be necessary to secure or preserve evidence or to obtain evidence via interview. But, for whatever reason, mental health services can’t or won’t take them, so they’re the police’s problem now.

The police, under pressure to reduce self-harm and deaths in custody, have taken steps to improve the custody experience. Sergeant Chris Hampshire (on behalf of the National Police Chiefs’ Council), said at our report launch “there has never been a greater drive for people to be in a better shape when they leave custody.” NHS-funded liaison and diversion teams are now in nearly every custody suite, assessing vulnerable detainees and (in theory) referring to health and other services.

Some people who are arrested and detained have urgent physical and mental health needs which have to be met. But there are consequences to seeing custody as a place where underlying needs are addressed.

Professor Cyrus Tata, an academic at the University of Strathclyde, has criticised the rise of “benevolent imprisonment” – the growing tendency to see prison as the best place for rehabilitation. While other services shrink and crumble, he says, prison custody appears as the “dependable, credible and well-resourced default” which “it is all too easy to imagine…if creatively reconfigured, can represent a sort of kindness”. Similar thinking can apply to police custody. The problem is, as Professor Tata points out, this approach can exacerbate the problem – resources are sucked into “dependable” options such as the police, while community-based solutions are left to wither, An academic told us recently: “Unfortunately, with regard to mental health provision, in my area we are often told “the fastest way to get help is just to keep phoning the police”.

It’s easy to see how we got here. The police hold a growing share of dwindling local resources because of funding cuts to community health services, mental health provision and drug and alcohol recovery support. Described by one webinar attendee as “culturally programmed to solve other people’s problems”, the police respond with a solution – bringing health and other support services into the custody suite.

But police custody is, above all, a place of secure confinement. It is not a hospital, a mental health treatment centre, or a drug and alcohol recovery centre. Being deprived of their liberty in a police cell is described by many as the most stressful time in their life – more stressful than prison, even. The custody experience should be improved but police custody should be a last resort. What can the police do instead when it comes to vulnerable detainees? In the short term, they could keep much better data on where health and other services can’t, or won’t, do what they should. Data collection may be a pain, but without evidence for where provision is lacking, nothing will change.

A longer term solution is to raise the threshold for use of police custody. The number of people brought to police custody in mental health crisis dropped dramatically with the introduction of new laws limiting the use of police custody as a ‘place of safety’ except in genuinely exceptional circumstances. A similar threshold could be applied to all vulnerable people who are mentally ill but not necessarily sectionable – particularly those accused of summary or either way offences. The money the police spend looking after vulnerable people in custody could go instead to mental health and other community based services.

Alternatively, take custody suites out of the hands of police. Suites could instead be owned and run by local authorities – a hub where health services, lawyers and police all operate rather than “police territory”. Many police officers are well aware they are not experts in caring for the most vulnerable people in our society. Fully resourced health and support services would allow officers to spend more time investigating crimes. They may balk at the idea, but defunding the police could ironically benefit officers. After all, police say they don’t want to be social workers.