It’s not often that a PCC chauffeurs me to an event so I was delighted when Gwent’s PCC, Jeff Cuthbert, and Communications Manager, Oswyn Hughes, met me at for a lift to the police station. It was a sunny, Friday afternoon and the warm welcome set the tone for a heartwarming visit.
Gwent had invited me along to see the suite that they had recently invested a great deal of money to refurbish. As I have mentioned a few times across my blogs, I value the opportunity to spend time on the ground in custody. My colleague, Sherry, also enjoys doing so. Time in custody gives us a sense of what is happening on the ground, to test ideas and national work and to get a solid comparison across different custody suites. Very few people have the opportunity to visit custody suites across the UK; it’s a privilege to do so. We use that position to share practice and learning and to better represent custody at national partnership meetings.
An old colleague of mine discussed a six-step challenge in custody. He argued that that you could tell the character of a suite within the first few steps of entering. I agree to a large extent – the smells, sights, sounds, the sense of organisation and initial interactions with staff tell their own story. Our first steps into Gwent were promising. We were personally greeted into custody and quickly welcomed into the suite. My initial meeting was with a sergeant who patiently answered my questions before returning to his colleague. I also met with the custody nurse. She, too, was happy to have a few words, but was also clear that she had a few detainees to see and that they were her priority. Staff were open and happy to discuss their work, but also quick to get back to it, my initial impressions were good.
The suite was busy, the holding cells were full and there were some difficult booking in processes taking place. I was impressed to see the sergeant working through a risk assessment with an aggressive detainee and managing to do so, and move them to their cell without major disturbance. Our Detention Officer walked us through the suite.
As we moved through the suite, I noticed how knowledgeable staff were. It was striking to see how many members of staff knew their PCC; staff stood up to shake his hand and mine. The Detention Officer and many staff had long service in custody and were keen to talk through their experiences and ideas, which Sian Curley, OPCC Chief Executive was aware of, able to explain and build on. I admired the culture of openness and engagement.
Staff discussed their recent experience of shutting down their closest custody suite and increasing footfall in the Newport one. They noted that this made it difficult to predict demand, that a Tuesday morning could be as busy as a Saturday night. There had been a number of large operations lately, which had a significant impact. Some staff preferred less busy suites, where they felt better aware of what was occurring in the cells. They felt that smaller suites improved risk management and gave them the opportunity to build relationships with detainees. In my experience, this is a common dilemma for police forces. Tightening budgets mean that it makes financial sense to centralise offices and custody suites. It also allows for new technology to be used. However, this comes with its own challenges and it’s interesting to see how suites evolve to this new way of working.
Onto this technology – one of the main reasons for my visit and I was keen to see it in action. Our escorting officer was able to demonstrate the Life Signs technology in use. This technology monitors the signs of life, such as movement and breathing, and sounds an alarm if it has concerns. It does not replace checks, but adds a further safety net. I have heard of this technology a few times, but I have never seen it up and working in a cell. I asked our officer whether he felt that it had led to improved outcomes for detainees and he was immediately able to cite examples of where Life Signs had instigated healthcare interventions that would not have otherwise taken place. I read through national inquest report summaries and often read of breathing slowing and detainees falling ill and eventually, tragically dying. These reports often state that staff could see breathing or hear snoring, so didn’t realise that a crisis was occurring. If Life Signs can help to prevent further deaths then this may really make an impact to detention.
Other technology included the ability for detainees to take telephone calls in their cells. Custody can be a real crisis point and so work was underway to ensure that detainees could speak to the Samaritans directly from their cells if needed. This, again, may save lives. We were also able to see innovations in interview rooms. The new suites were able to download footage from CCTV or body worn camera right into the interview room. You can imagine how more-or-less instant access to body worn camera footage or CCTV could change the dynamic of an interview. Finally, the suite had smart water detectors in place. Smart Water is a liquid that can be activated by an alarm or monitoring station and sprayed onto an intruder. This water contains a unique code and will remain detectable, although not to the human eye, for some time. It can be used to link a person to a crime scene and can mean that a detainee could enter custody for one reason, but then be linked to another incident. The combination of technologies brings together improvements in detainee welfare, but also assist investigations.
This brings me to my next point. Technology can only bring us so far. Staff knowing that medical intervention is required is only of use if they can access medical help. Phonecalls to the Samaritans provide initial support, but in many cases, will only help longer term if there are mental health services in place. I asked about access to healthcare, particularly mental health care and was met with surprised looks. In contrast to many suites I have been into, access to mental health beds did not appear to be a problem. I was told that they may have to sometimes wait a ‘few hours’ and that they wanted to do better and were working to do so. This was juxtaposed with my recent experience hearing of a child waiting for over 100 hours for a bed. I also asked them about children accessing local authority accommodation rather than staying overnight in custody. This was another area that they discussed. Gwent’s PCC talked about the concept of ‘one public service’ in Wales. He and Sian clearly had strong working relationships with all public service partners across the country and shared news of joint strategies that created integrated services between devolved and non-devolved powers. The philosophy had tangible success and would be making a difference to many vulnerable detainees.
I came to Gwent to see the refurbished suite and to see the technology. There is no doubt that they were on top of that – from the smartwater to Oswyn’s iPhone interviews – new technology was embedded in the service. This was making a difference and already, perhaps, had saved lives. However, pondering the visit on the train home, it wasn’t the technology that really stuck with me. It was the attitude of the staff. I was impressed. Every member of staff that we spoke to had ideas, they shook our hands, they knew who the Commissioner was and the role of ICVs. Some of the staff had worked in custody for many years and had ideas about how to improve the ICV role or streamline new work. The suites were calm and staff showed demonstrable care for their detainees who, in turn, were calm or calming. The staff were engaged in key topics had understood trends in custody, notably concerns about the lack of safe guards for voluntary interviews. In short, they cared. They cared about the service, they took pride in it, they wanted to improve it further. You can have the best facilities and technology in the world, but the thing that will make it really useful is the people who use it. My visit to Gwent embodied the idea of public sector ethos and care – from my welcome at the custody door to the parting request that I send any ideas for improvements right to the PCC. This is the care and culture that I hope to see in suites and I left work on Friday quite moved and happy.