There are stories across policing, like any culture; one of these is that policing London (or the Met) is different to policing the rest of the UK. My latest visit to custody, late last year, took me to central London to see whether this was true, accompanied by two ICVs who had invited me to come along via Twitter (#TweetUpCustodyVisit).

The experiences of a Chair

Every policing area has its own custody visiting scheme and they are all different. The Westminster area has its own Chair, supported by MOPAC staff at City Hall. Tim, the Chair, has a strong grip on local issues and had been active in identifying and evidencing problems.

Appropriate Adults

Children and vulnerable adults are entitled to an Appropriate Adult (AA) in police custody who will support and advocate for them. Youth Offending Teams are responsible for commissioning AAs for children. In contrast, no agency is responsible for commissioning the service for adults. In London, as elsewhere, this has led to a supply shortage. Consequently, vulnerable detainees face long waits or cannot move through custody. The Home Office is due to release some commissioning guidance shortly, but this solution will take time to embed and may not solve the problem. It’s likely that lots of areas will not have the AAs they need for some time.

Value and importance of feedback

ICVs are volunteers who seek to make positive change in the local community. They visit detainees who are often experiencing chaotic lives and have complex needs. ICVs need to know that their effort is invested well and that they make the change that detainees, and custody staff, need. Tim was clear about the need for a feedback loop – a ‘you said, we did’ and this is something that I will explore with my colleagues at MOPAC and across the UK.

Social media

I love Twitter and social media. It gives ICVA, a tiny organisation, a voice to talk about what we do and meet new stakeholders. We haven’t considered how ICVs or schemes should use social media to discuss their work and bring public reassurance to it. Tim is a keen Twitter user and reminded me that we need visibility online and can achieve so much more together than we can alone. I am revisiting this with some amazing colleagues who have harnessed social media and plan to run some workshops for our scheme managers, and possibly their ICVs, next financial year.

Ensuring panels are effective

Effective meetings can bring understanding, accountability and change. It’s important to have clear agendas and agreed outputs and outcomes to ensure that they are productive. We talked about ensuring actions are completed in between meetings, in structuring agendas and the evergreen issues that impact meetings. As with social media, this is something that we can help schemes to focus on and deal with and something I’ll consider for our Business Plan for next year.

Shadowing the visit

As the second visitor, Peter, appeared, we set off for our visit. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting to see; custody suites vary so much in design. The ‘Westminster’ suite is right in the middle of London. I absolutely adore London, but I am not blind to the crime and disorder that exists there. I imagined a huge and bustling suite with a steady flow of detainees, solicitors and others. I imagined one that looked like a Victorian jail.

I found something quite different. We arrived in the early evening to an old building with a beautiful lobby. We regularly hear complaints that staff do not let ICVs into the suite in a reasonable timeframe. It’s important that they get in quickly so that nothing can be hidden from the view of ICVs, ensuring transparency.  I was struck that the Duty Inspector had given their number directly to the volunteers to ensure quick access to custody.  This isn’t ideal, but it does show management respect for the scheme.

The suite itself was remarkably calm. There were a handful of detainees in place, all of whom were happy with their treatment. They had been given their rights and immediate access to healthcare as needed. We were able to speak to a detainee, who may have been violent, through the hatch and were satisfied that the detention logs reflected what was happening on the ground. I took the time to quiz the only female detention officer on treatment of female detainees. She faced physical challenges such as a limited supply of sanitary items and poor water pressure for showers. However, she was caring and it was clear that she took extra time out to reassure female detainees. I find that the attitude of staff makes all the difference and she struck me as someone who knew her work and who tried her best.

All this being said, the suite was also looking very tired and the whole place appeared desperate for investment. Numerous cells were out of use because they were simply not in an acceptable state. They did not have access to water in the cells and staff seemed to work around the shortcomings of the unit. I am told that there will be a refurbishment coming up imminently and I hope that this will incorporate designs that improve it.

Tim and Peter had further useful feedback as we completed the visit, reporting back on their iPad (!) via a web portal – not a carbon copy in sight. They spoke of long waits for immigration detainees – a problem elsewhere too and another example of people in police custody who should not be there.

Tim and Peter also spoke on dignity. As nurses, they were keenly aware of the need to give patients their dignity, through washing, fresh air and showers. They felt, and I agree, that this should be second nature in custody too. This also expanded to a discussion on translation and interpretation. We will continue to work on this to support volunteers and I came away with a list of ideas

As I returned home, I reflected on whether custody in the Met really was so different from elsewhere in the country. My visit didn’t suggest it was. The suite faced its own unique mix of challenges, but none that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The thing that stuck out to me was the ethos of the volunteers I met. This was a visit arranged over Twitter, directly with an ICV, with MOPAC’s blessing. The volunteers I met were keen to make a difference, to be effective and to know how their work was used. I applaud that and will be working with them to see what we can do to help