The police custody sergeant probably has the most difficult job in UK policing. In my humble view, it is more demanding than being a ‘duty inspector’ where you are responsible for almost everything going on. A constitutionally significant role, it is recognised as a quasi-judicial authority for the purposes of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Here’s the reason why it’s difficult: your first responsibility is to safeguard the health and welfare of detainees as well as the integrity of the legal process that should surround their detention in your care. You are expected to chace, chastise and charge senior detectives and senior officers to ensure legality and proportionality. You must assert yourself in the face of investigative delays.
It was my utter privilege to be a police custody sergeant. It made me feel like I had become a real sergeant, at last. The role defines that rank: your testing ground for an ability to appropriately control other police officers’ activities, to assert your personal authority and integrity. Your training makes you realise that the duty inspector cannot ‘pull rank’ to over-rule you, except in some very particular circumstances. If they try, they must by law be prepared to explain themselves to a superintendent. My favourite ever custody sergeant once faced a tirade of near personal abuse from an inspector over a particular decision he took. Having patiently listened whilst he was berated he just quitely picked up the phone, asking control room to ring the superintendent at about 3am. The inspector backed down within seconds.
But most custody officers I’ve known life their professional lives in a form of fairly acute proactive anxiety, relating to the potential for a death in police custody or following police contact. Procedures relating to detainee searching, background checking, risk assessing and health screening can take over half an hour per prisoner when book someone in, especially if they do not speak English. Some of them quite rightly put arresting officers through a quasi-judicial cross-examination to satisfy themselves of the risks they are about to take responsibility for managing as well as the integrity of the arrest. Only this month, I’m aware of a custody sergeant jumping up and down because an arresting officer had allowed a person to take (prescribed) methadone after being arrested. So they are the legal and physical guardians of society’s final emergency dumping ground and can often be found rolling around on the ground to keep people from hurting themselves through self-harm and disturbed behaviour.
Mental health issues bring particular challenges and frankly, frustrations: when a s136 arrest is brought in, the custody sergeant has a right to expect that this will be a position of last resort, an exception to the norm. But in 2008, over 65% of people detained for a place of safety were taken to the cells. They should be asking questions of the officer such as “What alternatives have you considered, where else have you tried?” Their legal and professional duty is not to a local mental health policy, but to the law, wherever those two things are different – and many of them are.
They are bound to act in accordance with Code C to the Codes of Practice to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and directed by Safer Detention guidance. These documents guide all aspects of treatment and detention and where medical matters are concerned, stating that the custody sergeant must ensure appropriate clincal attention and highlighting the risks of unprompt assessment / treatment of clinical risks involving alcohol, drugs and mental health. Whether this is all possible via an FME will depend on the condition and the availability or ETA for the FME. Where the sergeant feels that appropriate attention cannot be obtained in custody, they are obliged to call an ambulance or transfer the person to hospital.
Alcohol, drugs and resistant behaviour are particular warning signs for custody officers, especially if the person has been arrested brought before them without reference to paramedics or doctors. The IPCC reported in 2008 that 17% of all deaths in custody involve detainees with mental health problems, usually complicated by drugs, alcohol and resistant behaviours. 5% are s136 Mental Health Act.
A decision by a custody officer to transfer someone to an A&E department, having determined in good faith that the possible clinical risks are too great to be managed within a small concrete room by a doctor without much kit or cannot yet arrive, is lawful. Failures to do until it is potentially too late have in the past been grounds for suspension, disciplinary action and even criminal prosecution.
Of course, this doesn’t even touch custody sergeants’ legal responsibilities to determine levels of evidence and public interest for criminal inquiries; to refer a case to the CPS for prosecution or not; to manage police bail; to manage requests from solicitors, appropriate adults, doctors, nurses, intepreters, mental health assessment teams; of course we should not forget the need to oversee police officers, immigration officials, customs and excise and other police forces unfamiliar with local procedures to ensure that all adhere to legal frameworks during the chaos of a busy custody office. Oh, yes: food, drink, exercise, washing, observations levels and reviews of the same; hospital transfers, extra legal considerations for juveniles and complaints as well as legal reviews for some of the necessity of ongoing detention. All of which gets thrown into turmoil by the next fighting drunk coming through the door at near-zero notice.
This is serious business: it is the primary duty of custody sergeants to ensure some of the most demanding detainees are kept safe whilst vulnerable, under arrest. This should always take priority over everything else.