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This is an updated version of Dr John Kendall’s post In this post relating to measures to safeguard detainees from harm and the relevant issues of accountability

Dr John Kendall

By John Kendall PhD, External Associate, Centre for Crime Justice and Policing

The purpose of the Independent Custody Visiting Scheme is supposed to be to safeguard detainees from harm, and its first proponents saw it as a means to deter police misconduct which could lead to the death of detainees (Kendall, 2018: 34). Custody visitors make unannounced visits to police stations and report on what they find. Official literature claims that the Scheme contributes to police accountability (Home Office, 2001). However, as Casey points out in her study of the Met, there is very little police accountability (Casey, 2023), and her view is echoed in my finding that there is little police accountability provided by custody visiting.

Police accountability requires there to be some outside body to whom to account, which body may then regulate the conduct of the police. Remarkably, the police provide most of the regulation of their own conduct in custody suites (Kendall, 2018: 29). There is an average of up to 23 deaths in police custody each year, and over 50 suicides of detainees shortly after leaving custody (IOPC). Police and Crime Commissioners, whose role it is to hold the police to account (Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, sections 1 and 3), need to know what is going on in police custody, not just from what the police tell them, but from independent scrutiny.  One of the sources of that scrutiny is the Independent Custody Visiting Scheme. The visitors are managed by the Police and Crime Commissioners, whose Scheme Administrator collects reports from the visitors. This official discusses the reports privately with the police, and the Police and Crime Commissioner may then require the police to make changes. That at least is the theory of the part played by custody visiting in police accountability. Accountability is defined as the tangible process of justifying one’s actions or decisions to external democratic scrutiny (Syrett 2011: 160). The external democratic scrutiny of the police is therefore claimed to be provided by a combination of custody visitors and Police and Crime Commissioners, and the Commissioners then hold the police to account. Very little is known about how this operates. What evidence there is does not support the claim that custody visiting contributes to police accountability (Kendall, 2018: 117).

There is no mention of custody visiting in Caless and Owens’ survey of police accountability (2017). Some evidence has been found in my research into the work of the Scheme in a large urban area (Kendall, 2018), which also contained proposals for reform of the Scheme. What I found is rhetoric obscuring the reality, which is quite a feature of this subject (Kendall, 2018: 134-135). I heard the Scheme Administrator tell new recruits that the visitors provided information to the Police and Crime Commissioner, which the Commissioner used to hold the police to account, but the same Scheme Administrator also told me that the Commissioner had never used visitors’ reports for that purpose. The Commissioner published an annual report on custody visiting, but there was nothing in it which could remotely be described as a record of the Commissioner holding the police to account. The public therefore had no way of finding out about any of this, and the process of accountability could not be described as democratic, beyond the stark fact that the Commissioner is an elected official. I was not allowed access to the correspondence between the Scheme Administrator and the police, so it was impossible to ascertain the extent to which custody visiting could be said to be holding the police to account and the Commissioner requiring changes (Kendall, 2018: 117).

One of my proposals for reform of the Scheme is that defence solicitors should provide some of the training for visitors. This was agreed by both the Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA) and by the West Midland Police and Crime Commissioner (WMPCC). I arranged for a solicitor to address a WMPCC training session, but I was not allowed to take part in the session nor was I introduced to those present.  The training session, which was attended by some 50+ custody visitors and appropriate adults, took place in the West Midlands Police (WMP) Headquarters building, part of which is used by WMPCC. As well as occupying the same building, the two organisations use the same email system. WMPCC seem to me to be too closely connected with the police.

My colleague the defence solicitor gave his talk, which went down well and provoked some lively debate and questions. The incident which I want to focus on happened when we arrived, at the end of the previous session which was overrunning. Visitors were asking questions of a senior police officer. One visitor, with eight years’ experience, said he had, every year over that eight-year period, reported on the failure of the police to provide detainees with washpacks and showers.  Despite the visitor’s repeated requests, each year there had been no change to the police practice, with the police excusing this by saying that they were short-staffed. Staff shortages would create difficulties with arranging showers, but surely not with handing out washpacks. The visitor spoke with heartfelt concern about the issue and great frustration at the lack of a positive response.

The Assistant Commissioner with whom I had been working was not present at this event, so I wrote to him to say that I believed that this was an issue about which the Commissioner should be holding the police to account, and asked him to let me know whether he agreed, and if so, whether he could confirm that in future detainees would be given washpacks and showers, and asked him to copy his email to the people present at the training. I exchanged emails with the Assistant Commissioner over a period of nearly two months, in which he failed to give straight answers to these questions and eventually put forward a more junior colleague to say, in effect, that the correspondence was closed. What no one would say was whether the Commissioner had told the police to provide the washpacks and to tell detainees about the availability of showers, or whether the visitors had been informed about the outcome of the visitor’s complaint.

I find this both astonishing and deeply depressing. The Assistant Commissioner was prepared to say that everyone took this hygiene issue seriously, but he was not prepared to take the simple action of instructing the police to take the necessary action: or maybe he had issued the instruction to the police, but he didn’t like to say so. Or is the explanation that the Commissioner doesn’t tell the police what to do, even when everyone thinks it’s a good idea? Or is it that Commissioners are elected on a populist mandate to reduce crime and to obtain value for money, and they are not sufficiently focussed on the welfare of detainees (Reiner, 2016: 139)? Or is it that this Commissioner is embarrassed about not getting their way with the police? Or is this an example of a state institution being unwilling to let the light of day into their activities? It makes one wonder what is the point of it all. Who is in charge? Why does the Commissioner not hold the police to account about this? Is this an example of Steven Lukes’ theory of power, where the weaker party, here the regulator, the Commissioner, does not act against the stronger party, the regulatee, the police, whom they do not want to confront? (Lukes, 2005: 204-6.) If Lukes’ theory applies here, the Commissioner is doing what they think the police want them to do, that is to suppress criticism.

This reminded me of two incidents I observed during my original research. The first occurred when I was accompanying visitors on a visit to a police station. As we arrived at the door of one of the cells, the detainee said: ‘it’s a bit awkward, having other people in your cell, when you haven’t had a shower for two days.’ The police hadn’t told him that he could have a shower, so the visitors told hm he could (Kendall, 2018, 104). On another occasion when I was observing the life of a custody suite, I heard a member of the custody staff say to a colleague that a detainee had asked for a toothbrush, so the detainee’s girlfriend must be visiting (personal recollection not previously published): the implication was that this detainee (or maybe any detainee) wouldn’t otherwise bother to clean his teeth. Both these incidents show contempt for the detainees by the custody staff, or at least lack of care, or maybe just laziness, in omitting to provide for the detainees’ ordinary human needs. These incidents do not illustrate my point about accountability, but they do show the culture of at least some of the police, and maybe of society generally.  Detainees are, after all, some of the most demonised members of society, even though many are released without further action. Very few people think about detainees at all, except maybe to reflect that being arrested by the police and detained in police custody is something that happens to other people, like AIDS or bankruptcy.

What are the outcomes of the washpacks and showers story? First, the police will feel that they can continue not being bothered to take these simple steps for the benefit of detainees’ hygiene and human dignity. The second is that visitors will come to the conclusion that it is not worth making complaints because no one is listening, and they may just give up and leave the Visiting Scheme. This is what the system leaves us with: no trouble for the police, and demoralised visitors. Here is a chasm, between the rhetoric about the contribution of custody visiting to police accountability, and the reality of ineffectiveness and waste.

Since this material was published, I have been able to update this blog following my discovery of another instance of custody visitors’ messages about this issue not getting through to the authorities. I have also come across some missed opportunities where the custody system could benefit by receiving information and assistance from custody visitors.

Every five or six years, teams comprising members of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) and of the Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspect each custody suite in England and Wales. In August 2023 they published their report on their inspection visit to police custody suites in WMP. The report was quite critical of WMP: the Birmingham Post characterised the part of the report dealing with WMP’s use of force as a ‘damning assessment’. The report states that WMP couldn’t show that when force or restraint is used in custody, it is necessary, justified and proportionate, and that this had not improved since the 2017 inspection. The WMPCC, Simon Foster, issued a press release saying that he took the findings extremely seriously and that he would be holding the West Midlands Police to account. He went on to say that he wanted to ensure that immediate action be taken to remedy these causes for concern, as a matter of urgency. So far he has not published anything about what immediate action he is taking. He does not have much time left for this, as the Home Secretary has agreed to proceed with plans for the powers of the WMPCC to be transferred to the West Midlands Mayor after the May 2024 election (BBC news, 7th December 2023).

The work of the Independent Custody Visitors is one of the few aspects of WMP custody not to receive a bad mark in the inspectors’ Custody  Report. The report is however critical of many aspects as well as the use of force: the poor level of overall leadership, failure to comply with legislation, poor quality of recording in custody records, poor results for detainees with mental health issues, failure to check on intoxicated detainees, failure to offer detainees showers, failure to inform all detainees that while the suites are covered by CCTV the toilet area in cells with CCTV is obscured, failure to tell detainees about their rights and entitlements in custody, failing to keep cell floors clean, and inconsistent attention to the needs of detainees for an Appropriate Adult. Some of the targets of their criticism could have been identified by custody visitors. But it appears that the inspectors had very little contact with the custody visitors, except through the scheme’s coordinator. This is what the report has to say about custody visitors:

The force is open to external scrutiny. Independent custody visitors (ICVs) visit suites regularly and have a good working relationship with the force. They complete checklists following their visits, and any issues are dealt with at the time of the visit or at meetings between the force and the ICV scheme. The ICV scheme can access custody performance information and is involved in some custody monitoring arrangements.

It is, I think, clear from the failure to provide any detail, that the inspectors had neither met any of the custody visitors nor looked at any of their reports.

The report noted that showers and exercise weren’t routinely offered and, when detainees requested them, custody personnel couldn’t always provide these because they were too busy. This is much the same issue as that which custody visitors have been trying to bring to the WMPCC’s attention for the last eight years. Had the inspectors met the visitors in 2017, they would have heard about this then, two years into the eight year period, and they would have heard about it in 2023. Visitors who find that detainees don’t know they can have a shower can let them know and take the matter to the custody sergeant, and then report back the answer to the detainee.

The inspectors would also have been helped by talking to custody visitors about other issues noted in the inspectors’ report where custody had fallen short. Here are some examples. Custody visitors routinely check whether detainees are receiving, in that rather quaint phrase, their ‘rights and entitlements’. These include whether they have been offered legal advice and the help of an appropriate adult, and whether they have been told that they can have another person informed that they are in custody.  Visitors report on the cleanliness of cells, and their remit could be extended to explaining to detainees that the CCTV camera does not cover them when using the toilet.

The inspectors found a large number of potential ligature points. The inspectors commented:

 We found custody personnel had limited knowledge of these, so little action has been taken to mitigate the risks from these. Many of the potential ligature points identified in our 2017 inspection haven’t been dealt with to mitigate the risks they pose or reduce risk through staff awareness.

Custody visitors are supposed to check for ligature points. The visitors could have been made aware of this finding in the 2017 inspection, which would have helped to deal with this serious risk. It occurs to me that the visitors may not even have been told about the 2017 inspection. During the fieldwork for my PhD thesis, a visitor told me about an incident in the 2012 inspection when inspectors confronted custody visitors in the custody block demanding to know what they were doing there. The inspectors were unaware that visitors were in the block: and they also appeared to know very little about the work of custody visitors. And the visitors didn’t know what the inspectors were doing there either.

The conclusion I draw is that, in the West Midlands at least, both PCCs and HMICFRS and CQC inspectors fail to make use of this potentially valuable resource of concerned citizens acting as custody visitors. I hope that this research might prompt these bodies to take some notice of the visitors and make some use of them as an information resource. This would empower the visitors to contribute to police accountability and would help them to fulfil their role of safeguarding the welfare of detainees.



The Baroness Casey Review Final Report March 2023:

BBC news 7th December, 2023:

Birmingham Post, 5th October 2023, page 9.

Caless, B and Owens, J (2017) Police and Crime Commissioners: the Transformation of Police Accountability Bristol: Policy Press

Home Office (2001) Circular HOC 15/2001 Independent Custody Visiting London: Home Office

Kendall, J (2018) Regulating Police Detention, Voices from behind closed doors, Bristol: Policy Press

Lukes, S (2005) Power, a Radical View (2nd edn) Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Reiner, R (2016) ‘Power to the People? A social democratic critique of the Coalition Government’s police reforms’, in Lister R and Rowe M (eds) Accountability of policing London Routledge 132-49.

Syrett, K (2011) The Foundations of Public Law, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

West Midlands Custody Report:


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