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“Like being in a dog pound” – the reality of police custody

Penelope Gibbs
02 Dec 2018

I thought I’d lost the capacity to be shocked by the current criminal justice system but recent research by Dr Vicky Kemp on policy custody suggests we should all be concerned about what happens behind closed doors in police stations. I’m not referring to abuse of suspects or the detention of those with mental health problems (though both happen) but to the flouting of fundamental suspects’ rights.

Many people apprehended by the police are never taken down to the police station or asked to go there for interview. But those who are can be literally imprisoned by the police for hours. The police have to abide by very detailed PACE (police and criminal evidence act) guidance, but Dr Kemp’s research suggests the guidance is certainly not followed to the letter. She was embedded in two big police custody suites, where she interviewed suspects, police and lawyers. I’ll just highlight some of her findings:

  1. She talked to several people who had agreed to come to the station for a “voluntary” interview only to be clapped in the cells. The suspects turned up at the police station for a pre-arranged timed interview, but the police were often not ready at the right time so, instead of simply asking the suspect to return when they were ready, they detained (imprisoned) them instead. One suspect said that he had been asked to attend the police station to be interviewed about an incident that had occurred over three weeks previously. Having arrived at the appointed time, he was arrested and held in custody. He said, “I am really shocked to be in here [a cell] today. I only came to be interviewed and to find out what was happening”. Another suspect was asked to come to the station at 8.30am. He arrived on time but was arrested and detained and still waiting to be interviewed five hours later.
  2. Five hours is short for the time people were detained in custody. On average suspects spent 17 hours in custody, most of it in police cells where there is nothing to do and no means of contacting anyone since mobile phones are confiscated. Average time in custody seems to have increased (from 9 hours in 2009) partly because of police cuts, partly because the “rules” as to which police officers interview suspects have become more restrictive. Suspects were, not surprisingly, frustrated by the long delays, especially if they were missing work: “I’m a crane driver and I have seven or eight blokes who rely on me. They will be sent home today and won’t get paid. They have kids, families and mortgages, and this is all because I’m stuck in here, and for what?” Suspects were also often deceived as to how long the process would take: “it seems that, when making an arrest in the early hours of the morning, the arresting officers will sometimes try to assure suspects that they will be dealt with quickly in an attempt to calm them down, but knowing that this is unlikely to be the case”. In other words, officers are sometimes economical with the truth.
  3. A terrifyingly high proportion of suspects do not access legal advice and so are interviewed unrepresented. In this study 44 out of 90 detainees declined legal advice. Of these 39% said they did not need a solicitor, 30% said they had done nothing wrong and 30% said they thought they would get out of the police station quicker if they didn’t have to wait for a legal adviser. They are so wrong to refuse legal advice. It is totally free and anyone, guilty or innocent, needs advice on how to prevent self-incrimination and on what questions the police can ask. No police officer accused of a crime would ever be interviewed without a solicitor present. The police read suspects their rights and give them a leaflet, but people just don’t understand the role legal advisers play in safeguarding their rights. A twitter conversation this week confirmed that police sometimes warn suspects “you’ll be here much longer if you ask for representation”. An appropriate adult @staciann3 also heard a police officer say “solicitors are more trouble than they are worth”. Of course good police officers never say such things, but Dr Kemp’s research and numerous anecdotes suggest too many are happy to support suspects who opt not to use free legal advice or even to dissuade the unsure from getting it.
  4. Unfortunately the delays in getting a legal adviser to the station do seem genuine but it is not clear who is responsible. In Dr Kemp’s research one suspect “said he had requested legal advice when first detained at 9.30pm, but changed his mind in the morning. He said, “I was peed off this time because I came in and asked for a solicitor, but, at 10.30 this morning, nothing had happened and so I said I didn’t want one [a solicitor] and I was interviewed straight away”. Legal advisers say there are delays at the police end and that it’s fiendishly difficult to get hold of any potential client on the phone to reassure them. Nowadays, the police are not allowed to phone the duty lawyer directly. They have to phone a call centre. The call centre then calls the duty legal adviser to book them. The duty solicitor then tries to phone the police station to talk to the custody officer and the potential client, but usually can’t get through because the lines are engaged. So the potential client thinks they are being ignored.

Its not a pretty picture of justice at work. Most of it happens in camera, so its only through research like Dr Kemp’s that we get a glimpse into this hidden world. Unfortunately people don’t know what they don’t know. I’m sure that many suspects emerge from an interview in police custody totally oblivious to the risks they have taken in being unrepresented. Because, after all, if they are not guilty what do they have to hide?