A series of recent reports have revealed further evidence of racism and misogyny within police forces, including the disgraceful treatment of Child Q and investigations into the behaviour of some Charing Cross police officers. YouGov polling last year found that trust in police among Britons from ethnic minority backgrounds and women had dropped sharply and Sir Michael Barber, Chair of the Strategic Review of Policing, has recently spoken of a crisis of confidence in policing that requires fundamental change.
Although policing requires more vital, structural change, these recent events highlight how, independent and effective scrutiny that holds police to account is more important than ever.
The Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA), a network of over 180 organisations working towards a fair and effective criminal justice system, has previously examined how community scrutiny panels can effectively monitor and challenge the use of police powers such as stop and search.
We recently explored the effectiveness of community volunteers in monitoring the treatment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people and women detained in police custody.
What is independent custody visiting?
Independent custody visitors are members of the public who volunteer to visit police stations unannounced to monitor the treatment and welfare of the people detained there.
Independent custody visiting was established following the 1981 Brixton riots, which erupted in response to the oppressive and disproportionate policing of Black and minority ethnic communities. Lord Scarman — who was appointed by the government to lead an urgent inquiry — made several recommendations that aimed to improve relations between the police and local communities, including advocating for a system where members of the public should have the right to visit people detained in police stations.
Forty years on from the Scarman report, we set out to examine the effectiveness of independent custody visitors in monitoring the treatment of both Black, Asian and minority ethnic people and women held in police custody. We conducted surveys and held focus groups with custody visitors and their managers. Here’s what we found.
There is some positive work underway
We found some examples of positive work by custody visiting schemes to improve the treatment and welfare of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people and women. This included custody visitors raising concerns about the high use of force against Black detainees; successfully campaigning for women and girls in police custody to have an entitlement to menstrual products; checking Muslim people have access to prayer mats and Halal food; and helping detainees with relatives overseas to access international calls.
However, there are a range of barriers preventing custody visitors from monitoring race and gender equality in police custody more effectively.
Barriers to effectiveness
While nearly all custody visitors who participated in our research were aware of issues related to race and gender equality, a small number of custody visitors showed a limited understanding. These attitudes ranged from a poor understanding of institutional racism and how discrimination can negatively impact on detainees, to dismissing the positive efforts of other custody visitors who were actively identifying and challenging indirect discrimination.
Overall, custody visitors and their managers had received training and were continuing to learn from training sessions provided by the Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA) and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). However, several custody visitors were dismissive of the benefits of anti-racism training, which they thought was ‘divisive’ and ‘harmful.’
We heard that language barriers were also a challenge to the effectiveness of custody visitors. Some custody visitors specifically highlighted the need for better training on monitoring the needs of detainees who do not speak English and more practical ways of communicating with them, such as pictorial guides and online translation services.
We found panels needed to be more diverse to better represent the demographics of people detained in police custody. Some schemes had attempted to increase their diversity by targeting recruitment efforts at local faith groups, working with local specialist radio stations and adopting more inclusive hiring processes, but despite these efforts it remained a challenge.
There were also concerns about the lengthy tenures of some custody visitors and how the relationships they had built with police custody staff over time might affect their independence.
We found that a range of institutional barriers prevented custody visitors from effectively monitoring the treatment and welfare of minority ethnic groups and women. This included police data on race and gender being inconsistent and custody visitors having limited access to it, and scheme managers not having enough time to meaningfully review data to uncover any disparities in treatment of those detained.
In the report, we made a series of recommendations for public bodies to help overcome some of these barriers. This includes calling for the Home Office to require police forces to standardise the way they collect data on detainees’ race and gender and recommending that PCCs publish clear escalation processes which set out how discriminatory incidents or disparities raised by custody visitors are addressed.
The response and next steps
We worked closely with ICVA — an organisation which represents and supports custody visiting schemes across the country — to produce the report. The report makes various recommendations for ICVA to help improve how custody visitors work with data; increase the diversity of custody visitors; and improve the knowledge and expertise of these custody visitors on key equality issues. It has been encouraging to see work already underway by ICVA, such as through an anti-racism action plan.
Our report has also been shared with the Home Office and PCCs. In response Emily Spurrell, Merseyside’s Police and Crime Commissioner, said: ‘I am currently recruiting for new ICVs and the recommendations set out in this report will be at the forefront of the training they receive. I will work closely with our ICV Chair to ensure we keep these issues in the spotlight and proactively engage with groups who may be affected to make sure their voices are at the heart of our work.’
The CJA will soon be releasing a piece of work on the effectiveness of independent monitoring boards in scrutinising outcomes for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women in prison.
The CJA welcome the government’s proposals to introduce a national framework for community scrutiny of stop and search in its recent response to the Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities report. We would encourage the government to review other community scrutiny mechanisms, such as custody visiting, to make sure they are independent and effective.
Independent scrutiny can play an important role in creating fairer and more effective justice for all, but our work so far has highlighted some of the changes that must be made to fully deliver on this potential.