'Good' police custody: Influencing police custody policy and practice

Project start date: August 2019
Project end date: June 2022
Principal Researcher: Dr Layla Skinns with Angela Sorsby

LAW - Custody 0806

Research Context

Between 2013 and 2018, a research team collected a range of data, as part of an ESRC-funded “'Good' police custody? Theorizing the 'is' and the 'ought'”, hereafter referred to as the GPCS. The primary aim of the research was to robustly examine what is meant by ‘good’ police custody. These data have been used to explore preliminary ideas about good police custody (Skinns et al., 2015) and the importance of detainee dignity (Skinns et al., 2020), the delivery of police custody (Skinns et al., 2017a), staff-detainee interactions and the use of ‘soft’ power (Skinns et al., 2017b), detainees’ emotional reactions to police custody (Wooff and Skinns, 2017), the pains of police detention (Skinns and Wooff, 2020), as well as police-academic partnerships during research on police custody (Greene and Skinns, 2017) and the use of appreciative inquiry in police custody research (Skinns et al, forthcoming). Please see our dignity in justice page and publications which are freely available online. This research is also the basis for an impact case study for REF 2021.

In Phase 3 of the research, in 2016-17, the research team surveyed nearly 800 staff and detainees in 27 custody facilities in 13 police forces. These data were used in Phase 4 of the research to formulate good practice recommendations, which were launched in October 2019 (see here). It was recommended that dignity - linked to equal worth, autonomy and decency - should be priorities that police custody practitioners, managers, national leads and policy makers should take account of in relation to the operation and strategic direction of police custody, alongside existing priorities such as safety, security, risk, cost effectiveness and the demands of the law and the criminal justice process. It was also recognised that such changes may yield benefits for detainees and for staff, through increased detainee cooperation, for example. In pursuit of these goals, it was recommended that changes be made to police attitudes and behaviours; policies, training and line management procedures; detainee expectations; and the material conditions of police custody.

From September 2019-July 2022, work was undertaken on Phase 5 of the GPCS, in which the research team facilitated the implementation of these recommendations in three police forces, who volunteered to take part. The two main aims of this project were to:

1. Facilitate the implementation of the good practice recommendations derived from the good police custody in up to six police force areas (though this aim had to be scaled back to a smaller number of forces due to the effects of Covid-19);

2. Evaluate the impact of the uptake of these recommendations on police officers’ experiences, and on their attitudes and behaviours towards detainees, as well as on the experiences of detainees.

This phase of research was therefore concerned with making changes to police custody practices and to the experiences of detainees, and to measure the extent of this impact and the process by which this impact came about. These changes were based on good practice recommendations from the GPCS.

This Phase 5 implementation and evaluation work was divided in two parts, with Force A taking part in Phase 5a and Forces B and C taking part in Phase 5b.

The report for Force A and Phase 5a can be found here 

The report for Forces B/C and Phase 5b can be found here 

Research Methodology

In Phase 5 of the GPCS, the custody suite in which the measures were being implemented was compared before and after implementing the recommendations from the research with a comparator site, where no measures were implemented. The research was conducted in four stages to fit around the implementation work, as follows: 

  • Stage 1: Pre-implementation quantitative survey of staff and detainees in the test and comparator sites; 
  • Stage 2: Brief staff survey using open and closed questions in test site and comparator site in response to ‘I am Human’ animation, which was used to create a good practice examples sheet;
  • Implementation work in test site;
  • Stage 3: Process evaluation in the test site, involving semi-structured interviews with staff and detainees and participant observation;
  • Stage 4: Post-implementation quantitative survey of staff and detainees in the test and comparator sites.

During the implementation stage, staff were asked to give greater overall emphasis to detainee dignity in all that they did, recognising that every interaction matters. In particular, staff were asked to:

  • Adopt a new handover sheet with dignity as a standing item.
  • Offer custody information sheets to all detainees, and to display custody information posters in the custody suite in places where detainees were likely to spend time looking at them e.g. in the holding area, consultation rooms, fingerprint rooms.
  • Make use of a good practice examples sheet to guide their day-to-day practices and their discussions during handover. This sheet was developed from the Stage 2 survey, in order to give staff a sense of ownership over the project.
  • Give greater consideration to dignity in decisions about the keeping of personal effects, risk assessments permitting (Staff were to discuss these decisions with managers if they were unsure)

Enable routine access to various material goods (e.g. reading and writing materials, other distraction box items, blankets, food and drinks, range of clothing)

Publications (freely available online)

Research Team (2013-present)

  • Principal investigator: Dr Layla Skinns (2013-present)
  • Statistician: Dr Angela Sorsby (2015-present)
  • Research Assistant: Rivka Smith (June to December 2021; April to August 2016)
  • Research Assistant: Dr Rebecca Banwell-Moore (Feb 2020 – September 2020)
  • Research Assistant: Dr Lindsey Rice (2016-2017)
  • Research Assistant: Amy Sprawson (Feb 2014- March 2016)
  • Research Associate: Dr Andrew Wooff (Feb 2014 – July 2015)
  • Fieldworkers in 2016 and 2017: Claire Kershaw, Dr Dermott Barr, Dr Amal Ali

Research funding (2013-present)

  • September 2013 – August 2018: “’Good’ Police Custody: Theorizing the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’”, ESRC research grant ES/JO23434/1 (£518,508).
  • September 2019-December 2021: ‘Good’ police custody: influencing policy and practice, ESRC Impact Acceleration Funding/Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Sheffield (£38,071).
  • January 2018 – July 2019: The ‘good’ police custody study, ESRC Impact Acceleration Funding/Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Sheffield (£24, 168).
  • February – July 2020: Theatre production and animation costs, ad hoc funding from the School of Law, University of Sheffield, Public Engagement Team and Impact Team (£17,949).

Page last updated in July 2022.

Further information

For further information about this project please email Dr Layla Skinns (L.Skinns@sheffield.ac.uk).

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