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Volunteers inspecting custody suites run by Kent Police

By Chris Britcher

When Brixton erupted in violence in April 1981, the simmering tension between some communities and the police exploded on to the streets to devastating effect.

Nearly 300 police officers were injured, along with 65 others. Dozens of cars were torched and property damaged.

In the aftermath, the government commissioned a report into the divisions and how to ensure no repeat, as similar scenes were played out in Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester.

Cell visits are carried out across the Kent Police custody suites
Cell visits are carried out across the Kent Police custody suites

Among a host of socio-economic factors, it would unearth a deep-seated lack of trust in the police, and failings in the way it handled those suspected of crime.

One of the many recommendations of the inquiry, led by former High Court judge Lord Scarman (who, coincidentally, died in Westgate-on-Sea in 2004), was for independent reviews of those detained in custody and the conditions they were subjected to.

Refined over the years, it is today known as the Independent Custody Visiting Scheme, and comes under the remit of each region’s police and crime commissioner.

In Kent, there are around 50 volunteers who, working independently from the police, make weekly, unannounced, visits to all of the county’s custody suites to check on everything from treatment of detainees to the state of the decor.

Their mission is simple – to ensure those who find themselves in custody get their rights and are being treated fairly and in satisfactory conditions.

Information is fed back to the PCC's office
Information is fed back to the PCC's office

“I heard about it, thought it sounded interesting, went through the recruitment process and I’m still here,” smiles Neil Matthews, 65, a retired marine engineer from Hythe. He has been a volunteer for five years.

“Transparency of the police is important for those for whom they have taken their liberty away,” he adds, “even if only for a short period of time.

“I always think about it as if my mother was arrested, I’d want to know she was being looked after.”

As a co-ordinator for the south and east of the county, each volunteer he works alongside commits to a minimum of 10 visits a year.

The visits, always in pairs and which can be at any given time on any given day, can take anything from one hour to more than four.

He adds: “To be detained, you may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. So you could be entirely innocent.

Pairs will visit each custody suite weekly
Pairs will visit each custody suite weekly

“But you’re away from prying eyes and you need someone like us to come in, unannounced at any time, and make sure you’re being looked after. It’s crucial that happens. If I was there I’d want someone to do it.

“Custody suites can get really busy and we can go at that time and see how they handle it. They have to do everything to the book when it’s busy as well as they do when it’s slack.”

Jim Williamson, 62, is a retired civil servant from Medway, who has been volunteering for four years, and oversees the north and west of the county.

He explains: “We’ll flag up any issues immediately to the escorting officer during the visit and in most cases it’s dealt with there and then. But it’s all logged. If they take more than three minutes to let us into the suite when we arrive, we’ll want to know why that was.

“We check the exercise yard, the showers, the toilets, the kitchens, for graffiti, temperature probes for food for cleanliness, that meals are being checked for temperature, that the food is in date, that choices are there for vegetarians and religious needs. Do they have a Bible, a copy of the Quran?

Jim Williamson, left, and Neil Matthews are members of the independent custody visiting scheme
Jim Williamson, left, and Neil Matthews are members of the independent custody visiting scheme

“We also check the custody suite is clean and tidy and presentable.”

A report is then compiled and its contents shared with the custody officer who can comment on the findings. It is then sent to the police and crime commissioner’s office and collated.

Concerns are then escalated.

“It’s not just a tick box exercise,” insists Mr Williamson. “It really does make a difference.”

Notably, elsewhere in the UK, it was the volunteer visitors who highlighted a lack of sanitary products for women detained –an issue subsequently resolved as a result.

“The volunteers play a vital role in policing,” reflects PCC Matthew Scott. “They help to improve conditions in custody and provide a voice for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

From April 2017 to March 2018, 319 visits took place at the custody suites in Folkestone, Margate, Canterbury, Tonbridge, Maidstone, Bluewater, Medway and Ebbsfleet.

Kent PCC Matthew Scott
Kent PCC Matthew Scott

More than 1,000 detainees were seen and willing to answer questions on their treatment.

“They don’t tend to just criticise,” says Mr Williamson of those in custody they encounter. “Mostly they are happy to talk. If they ask us why they’re there we have to shut down that conversation immediately. That’s not our role.

“In fact, some have been complimentary about how they have been handled and we’ll feed that back too.

“Fortunately, we don’t see huge significant issues. It’s mostly little procedural things – like times of reviewing those in custody being missed or delayed. We pick that up and report it.

“It’s important there is an independent oversight – people who have nothing to do with the police; have no vested interests in conviction rates or whatever but just make sure people are being treated properly.

“There is a risk that no matter how good the standards you’ve got – and this applies to all organisations, not just the police – if you feel you can cut a corner, you will.

"Those bad practices then become ingrained in the processes so you move away, almost imperceptibly, over a period of time, from being excellent at what you’re doing to barely doing what you’re meant to be doing.

“We’re there to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“Transparency of the police is important for those for whom they have taken their liberty away..." - volunteer Neil Matthews

“I certainly didn’t come in to this thinking the police did not treat those in custody fairly.

“Pre-Scarman, that may possibly have been the case. But that’s not the reality now and hasn’t been for some time.”

Ah yes, the ‘old way’ of doing things recreated in hit TV shows in recent years such as Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes where when detained the eyes of society were looking elsewhere.

“Life on Mars doesn’t happen,” laughs Neil Matthews, “but you get a better understanding of the police.

“It doesn’t mean, of course, you’re going to forgive them if they do something wrong.”

For those who want to volunteer, the latest round of recruitment has just concluded, but the police and crime commissioner is keen to hear from others interested in the role.

They are keen to hear from any adults, of all ages, ethnicities and genders to take part. Each will be subject to a recruitment process and be vetted.

Anyone involved in the criminal justice system or police cannot apply.

The only condition is you live or work in Kent, have lived in the UK for three years, can speak good English and can commit to the time for the visits and the subsequent filing of reports.

Each volunteer is expected to do at least 10 visits a year - but many will do more. There is also a meeting of all volunteers to discuss issues every quarter.

For more information or to apply contact the Kent police and crime commissioner office at icv.scheme@pcc.kent.pnn.police.uk, call 01622 604347 or see www.kent-pcc.gov.uk/icv.html

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