Sun, 22 Jan 2012

Visiting London's police custody suites

When the police arrest someone they usually detain him or her in a cell in a station's custody suite. To ensure detainees are treated well, local community members –known as Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs)– volunteer to conduct unannounced visits of police custody suites and speak with detainees (with their consent) about their experience from the time they arrived in the custody suite. The visits are always done by a pair of ICVs and often last a couple of hours. At the end of each visit, the ICVs discuss with the custody staff any immediate concerns and write notes about the visit and any issues they feel need further answers from the police for follow up at the next quarterly ICV panel meeting.

Data obtained from Freedom of Information requests sent to the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) and the Metropolitan Police Service (Met) shows that there are 82 custody suites in London with a total of 1,057 cells. The Met explained they have a total of 992 operational cells contained within 72 custody suites across London, however ICVs also visits custody suites of the British Transport Police as well so these are included in the MPA data and my analysis.

Over a period of 29 months, they were 4,834 visits by ICVs. During that period, custody suites opened 24/7 were visited on average three times a month, 23 months out of the 29. On average, during a visit there were just over six detainees held in the custody suite and more than three of them where in their cells and accepted to talk to the ICVs.

ICV visits in London's custody suites during the 29 months from 2009-06 to 2011-10
Type of custody suite Total # stations Total # cells Total # visits Average # months with visits Average # visits / month visited Total # det. in custody during visits Average # det. in custody / visit Total # det. spoken to by ICVs Average # det. spoken to / visit
All custody suites821,0574,834192.930,5976.315,9063.3
24/7 custody suites
Overflow custody suites
Unknown (either 24/7 or overflow)
Closed custody suites

It would have been interesting to find out how many persons are detained in each custody suite every month and for what reason, but that data is currently not collated by the Met. Ironically, even though this historic data is not held by the Met, some of it is held by the MPA as it is written down by ICVs during their visits. Stephen Bloomfield, Head of TP Criminal Justice, Territorial Policing Headquarters explains that 'The current NSPIS [National Strategy for Police Information Systems] Custody system does not store historic data regarding cell usage. It is designed to be a live system with a capacity to store custody records and not which cell was used or when a custody suite was full. No information is held centrally as to which custody suite is open on a monthly or daily basis although this has been identified as an area which requires work and it is hoped that this information will be held in the future.'

Marylebone and other overflow custody suites

After the United Friends and Family Campaign (UFFC) annual march at the end of last year (see Police provocations at peaceful march against deaths in custody and Question to the police authority about police provocations at peaceful march and Met's response to the 'Protecting the innocent' review on DNA retention), a small group of those that participated in this demonstration went to Marylebone police station to wait for the release of the man who had been arrested at the end of the march and was detained there. This station has an overflow custody suite that is only occasionally used, in particular for public order situations. Several of those present wondered if Marylebone and other overflow custody suites are visited by ICVs.

Overflow custody suites are mainly used as charge centres for major public or sporting events such as football matches, for local policing operations, for bail to returns and temporarily while another suite is closed for any reason e.g., cleaning, maintenance, upgrade work. In the couple of days it takes to plan the opening of an overflow custody suites, the police have the duty to inform ICV panels who can then schedule visits to custody suites that are not opened 24/7. Protocol 7 of Appendix G of the London ICV Handbook (pdf) specifies that 'A single point of police contact on the borough should be identified to inform [ICV] panels promptly of any intended changes, closures or additions to custody facilities'.

As can be seen in the summary table above, there are 18 overflow custody suites with a total of 159 cells. The average number of months visited during the 29 months surveyed period is low: four. This could indicate either that these overflow custody suites are not open often or that they're not visited even when opened; there's not enough information available to clarify this point. During the visits, there tends to be fewer detainees held in cells with an average of close to three, consequently ICVs on average spoke to fewer detainees in overflow custody suites than in those open 24/7.

The UFFC march was on Saturday 2011-10-29, Mike Lyng, Quality and Assurance Advisor, on behalf of Territorial Policing and Central Operations, 'advise [...] that Marylebone Custody Suite was not opened [on that day] in order to target any specific public order operation. However on the day in question there were a number of events taking place in central London including The United Family and Friends Campaign annual march, Amnesty International solidarity to Syrian protestors march and Syrians love Syria counter demonstration. In order to ensure sufficient facilities were available on this day, a charge centre in close proximity to the marches was requested. In this instance Marylebone Custody suite was selected as the dedicated charge centre. There was no specific request for the charge centre to be Marylebone. It was selected due to its proximity to the events taking place. The officer with the responsibility for this task was a sergeant from Kensington and Chelsea borough police working under the direction of Commander Michael Johnson from Public Order and Operational Support (CO11).'

Met searches reveal that during the period September to November 2011, the Marylebone custody suite has been opened on 18 days and received 137 detainees:

Detainees held in Marylebone custody suite
from September to November 2011
Arrest date Total held in Marylebone custody suite

The spreadsheet from the MPA does not list any ICV visit to Marylebone custody suite for a 29 months period including September and October 2011, and the latest published annual report of the Westminster ICV panel, for 2009, does not mention the Marylebone custody suite at all.

The system works for some overflow custody suites as for instance Tooting and Hackney were visited respectively 31 and 15 times during this 29 months period, however, like Marylebone, the Brentford, Orpington and Harrow Road custody suites didn't receive any ICV visit during that period.

Becoming an ICV

ICV panels are regularly recruiting new members. The ICV scheme was created following a recommendation of Lord Scarman in his report on the 1981 Brixton riot. It became a statutory scheme with the Police Reform Act 2002 and is managed by Police Authorities. To volunteer, contact the police authority local to where you live or work. In London, the ICV scheme was managed by the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) until earlier this month, and now by the new Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime (MOPC). Note that the wealth of information about the ICV scheme has not yet been moved from the MPA website to the MOPC one, so for more details follow the MPA link.

Bootnote 1 See the table below for a more detailed summary listing all the London custody suites:

Analysis of ICV visits in London's custody suites during the 29 months from 2009-06 to 2011-10
Borough Station Type of station
(Met data)
Type of station
(MPA data)
# cells
(Met data)
# visits # months with visits Average # visits / month visited Total # det. in custody during visits Average # det. in custody / visit Total # det. spoken to by ICVs Average # det. spoken to / visit
Barking and DagenhamFreshwarf New Build24/727/7300
Barking and DagenhamBarkingOverflow7431.3307.5143.5
Barking and DagenhamDagenhamOverflowClosed930122.51304.3612.0
BrentKilburn50% Overflow24/71790293.14374.92763.1
BrentWembley Park (BTP)24/71018121.5100.650.3
BromleyBromley (PFI)24/724/730127294.49137.24653.7
CamdenKentish Town24/724/71190293.14344.82843.2
CamdenTottenham Court Road (BTP)24/71091293.13363.71972.2
CamdenAlbany StreetOverflowOverflow9951.8394.3293.2
CroydonSouth Norwood24/724/711103293.65605.43373.3
HackneyStoke Newington24/724/716102283.67667.54884.8
Hammersmith and FulhamHammersmith24/724/718431.3184.5102.5
Hammersmith and FulhamFulham24/7Overflow9961.5283.1161.8
Hammersmith and FulhamFulham Place Road (BTP)33152.2451.4260.8
Hammersmith and FulhamShepherds BushOverflowClosed9
HaringeyWood GreenClosed428122.330.120.1
HeathrowHeathrow Polar Park24/724/730116294.03823.32512.2
HillingdonWest Drayton24/724/79116294.03352.92151.9
IslingtonBrewery Road (BTP)24/72273.1602.7261.2
Kensington and ChelseaChelsea24/724/781682.0452.8281.8
Kensington and ChelseaNotting Hill24/724/761682.0342.1171.1
Kensington and ChelseaKensingtonOverflowOverflow6111.011.011.0
Kingston upon ThamesKingston24/724/710112293.94153.72742.4
LewishamLewisham (PFI)24/724/73381292.81,13514.04075.0
NewhamForest Gate24/724/71590293.17027.83543.9
NewhamWest Ham (BTP)22191.2231.0160.7
Richmond upon ThamesRichmond24/724/752173.0512.4361.7
Richmond upon ThamesTeddington24/7Overflow5541.391.881.6
Richmond upon ThamesTwickenhamOverflowOverflow4111.000.000.0
SuttonSutton (PFI)24/724/730126294.38576.84603.7
Tower HamletsBethnal Green24/724/7192392.61918.31145.0
Tower HamletsLimehouse24/724/7722102.2753.4462.1
Waltham ForestWaltham Forest / Leyton24/724/7300
Waltham ForestChingfordClosed1298293.46116.23733.8
WestminsterCharing Cross24/724/745951.89610.7586.4
WestminsterPaddington Green24/724/7141271.7675.6292.4
WestminsterEbury Bridge (BTP)24/742783.4401.5210.8
WestminsterHarrow RoadOverflowOverflow140
WestminsterWest End CentralOverflowOverflow28331.020.710.3

Bootnote 2 For even more details, I've collated the source data and my analysis in this Excel spreadsheet.

Bootnote 3 And to check out the several Freedom of Information requests it took to obtain all the data used in this post, see:

websiteblogblog archivenews feedfeedback