Photo: Custody Cells

'Good' Police custody: theorizing the 'is' and the 'ought'

Project start date: September 2013
Project end date: August 2017
Funding awarded by the ESRC: £518, 508

Background to the study

Police custody is where an arrested person is taken whilst a decision is reached about what should be done with the case. It is therefore an important gateway to the criminal justice process. What happens in police custody can have important consequences further down the line. For suspects, their safety, well-being, fair treatment and access to justice is at stake and, for the police, their legitimacy (Skinns, 2011). In recent years, there have been shifts towards civilianisation of key roles in police custody and, more recently, privatisation through the use of public-finance initiatives.

These processes of civilianisation and privatisation have been little explored in the existing research literature, of which there are three main tranches. First, research was conducted in the wake of miscarriages of justice, connected to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure (RCCP) 1981, the implementation of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), and the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (RCCJ) 1993. Second, whilst empirical interest in police custody began to dwindle in the mid- to late-1990s, notable exceptions included Choongh’s (1997)’s research on the social disciplining of suspects, two Home Office research studies (Bucke and Brown, 1997; Phillips and Brown, 1998) and Newburn and Hayman’s (2002) study of the use of closed circuit television (CCTV) in police stations. Third, Skinns’ (2011) ESRC-funded study conducted in 2007 appears to have re-opened police custody as an area of empirical inquiry. Subsequent to this, there have been three studies of legal advice in the police station (Kemp and Balmer, 2008; Kemp, 2010, Pleasence et al. 2011). More recently, there have also been two other studies of relevance to police custody concerning the use of risk prediction to divert offenders from the formal criminal justice process (led by Peter Neyroud), and suspects’ procedural rights in police detention in the EU (led by Jackie Hodgson and Ed Cape).

The present study is also located within three groups of theories about power and the creation and maintenance of social order, including theories about discretion and its relationship with administrative, formal and informal rules; suspect compliance and police legitimacy; and prison legitimacy, particularly work exploring prisoner responses to the exercise of power over them. By blending the empirical with the theoretical one of the aims of the research is to test and link together these hitherto distinct sets of theories.

Aims of the research

The overall aim of the study, however, is to rigorously examine what ‘good’ police custody is, taking into account recent shifts towards civilianisation and privatisation in how police custody is delivered. This research will make an impact by contributing to existing mechanisms for monitoring and reforming police custody. It will also benefit the academic community as theories about ‘good’ police custody will be used to explore the implications for ‘good’ or ‘good enough’ policing (Bowling, 2011), an important topic in the light of the unquenchable thirst for security in contemporary societies and an austere economic climate (Loader and Walker, 2007: 11).

More specifically, the aims of the research are to:

  1. Describe and appraise variations in police custody arrangements across the UK.
  2. Identify the key dimensions of police custody areas in operation. They might include occupational culture(s), power, fairness, justice, emotions and relationships, cost, governance and accountability (see Skinns, 2011: 219-225).
  3. Explore how police custody arrangements such as civilianisation and privatisation impact on these key dimensions of police custody.
  4. Conceptualise and theorise the dimensions of ‘good’ police custody and the links between them, and examine the implications for ‘good’ policing.
  5. Develop benchmarks and a survey tool to monitor and improve police custody facilities, complementing the inspection work of HMIP/HMIC and existing benchmarks such as the PACE Codes of Practice and Authorized Professional Practice Guidelines (formerly ACPO Safer Detention guidelines).

Research methods

These aims are to be explored through the collection of qualitative and quantitative data over three years by a team of researchers, including through surveys, participant observation, interviews and data from official records.

  • Phase 1 (months Sept 2013-Feb 2014): There will be a survey of all police services in England and Wales, asking them about the composition of their main police custody facilities.
  • Phase 2 (Mar 2014-Dec 2015): In four police custody suites, one month of participant observation will be followed by interviews with staff and suspects, and the collection of data from official records about suspect experiences and outcomes.
  • Phase 3 (Dec 2015-Aug 2016): Based on the data collected in Phase 2, a survey tool will be designed to test developing theories about ‘good’ police custody, which will be administered to staff and suspects in up to 20 police services.
  • Phase 4 (Sep 2016-Jan 2017): The data from the study will be used to create a set of benchmarks and a survey tool for police organisations to measure their performance. Information about this and other key findings will be disseminated to key police stakeholders through an end-of-project conference and workshop.

Additional support with the phase 3 data collection

  • Rivka Smith
  • Amal Ali
  • Dermot Barr (University of Manchester)

Bowling, B. (2011) ‘Policing, trust and ethnic minorities’, at the EURO-JUSTIS International Conference on Trust, Consent and the Rule of Law, Natural History Museum, London, May 2011.

Bucke, T. and Brown, D. (1997) In police custody: police powers and suspects’ rights under the revised PACE Codes of Practice. Home Office Research Study 174. London: Home Office.

Choongh, S. (1997) Policing as social discipline. Oxford: Clarendon.

Kemp, V. and Balmer, N. (2008) Criminal Defence Services: User’s Perspectives Research Paper No. 21. London: Legal Services Research Centre.

Kemp, V. (2010) Transforming legal aid: access to criminal defence services, London: Legal Services Research Centre.

Loader, I. and Walker, N. (2007) Civilizing security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newburn, T. and Hayman, S. (2002) Policing, surveillance and social control: CCTV and police monitoring of suspects, Cullompton: Willan.

Phillips, C. and Brown, D. (1998) Entry into the criminal justice system: a survey of police arrests and their outcomes. London: HMSO.

Pleasence, P., Kemp, V. and Balmer, N.J. (2011) ‘The justice lottery? Police station advice 25 years on from PACE, Criminal Law Review, Issue 1, 2011.

Skinns, L. (2011) Police custody: Governance, legitimacy and reform in the criminal justice process. Cullompton: Willan.

Project updates

If you wish to receive project updates, news and event information please email to join the emailing list.