Violence in Police Custody: When Gatekeepers become Rulebreakers.

When a person is arrested and taken to a Police station, it is required that they be brought as soon as possible before the Custody Sergeant, who presiding behind the desk of the custody suite, will determine whether the suspect should or should not be detained. His role is to establish the grounds and necessity for arrest, decide if they are lawful, and ‘interview’ the detained person to establish (in particular) their personal details and whether they have any requirement for medical treatment.

Although in the circumstances a person under arrest – brought before the custody desk like a prisoner before the king – might not see it that way, the Custody Sergeant’s primary function is to ensure the well-being of that person; to order their immediate release if they have been wrongly arrested (a rare, but not unheard of event), to determine if they are at risk of self harm and to arrange any necessary medical treatment. But they also exercise a great deal of power over the detained person, in particular having the authority to ‘sentence’ a person to the degradation of a strip- search.

The ‘job description’ for a Custody Sergeant is defined by the College of Policing to include the following key responsibilities –

  • Upholding the care & welfare of detained persons
  • Ensuring that all Police staff have due regard to the rights and treatment of persons arrested
  • Maintaining high standards of security and safety within the Custody Suite
  • Recognising at all times the dignity and wellbeing of detainees

Whether Custody Sergeants always act in the best interests of the detainees brought before them is open to question. They are only human, and no doubt have to put up with a lot of ‘aggro’ from people under arrest. This can lead to many Custody Sergeants coming across to detainees as cold, uncaring or arrogant – even sometimes actively antagonistic, as one of my clients found when she was brought into a Middlesbrough custody suite by Cleveland Police officers for allegedly refusing a roadside ‘breath test’ in December 2019.

My client, Catherine, was brought before the Custody Sergeant and what then occurred is fully evidenced by the video and audio recording of the CCTV cameras in the custody suite (which is often the only part of a Police station to have constant audio recording, rather than just ‘silent’ movie footage). This is because, as I have indicated above, the Custody suite is almost like the ‘court room’ of the Police station where the Custody Sergeant (in the role of a quasi- judge) determines whether a person should be detained or released and ‘sentences’ them to detention in a cell, strip –search, or calls for medical treatment etc.

Catherine was extremely unhappy about her arrest, and was letting her feelings be known. A scuffle occurred between Catherine and the Officers escorting her, during which a female officer pushed Catherine’s head down so that it almost connected with the custody desk. It is evident that the Custody Sergeant at this point lost his temper, and he leaned across the desk, waving his pen in Catherine’s face and shouted –

Shut your fucking mouth, you drunken little slut.”

Unsurprisingly, this did nothing to defuse the situation and in my opinion it is reprehensible that the senior officer in this situation, whose role as the ‘gatekeeper’ of the Police station is to be a fair arbitrator and is to ensure the welfare and safety of detainees, should speak to someone in such a hostile and deliberately demeaning and degrading way. This particular Officer was certainly not meeting the College of Policing’s definition of the ideal Custody Sergeant as someone “resolute and compassionate…able to set out logical arguments clearly, adapting language , form and message to meet the needs of different people/ audiences” – although perhaps he thought he was…

A similar dereliction of duty by a Custody Sergeant was that in the recently reported case of Gareth Starr, who was found guilty of gross misconduct for mocking and making fun of a drunken detainee who was staggering around his cell, and who slipped and fell in his own urine. What made this even worse, as Starr laughed at the man and failed to go to his aid, was that he did this in the presence of junior colleagues, setting a terrible example of disrespect for human dignity. Starr apparently “actively discouraged” another Officer from going to give aid to the detainee, because watching him was more “amusing”.  Avon & Somerset Constabulary made it clear that Starr would have been immediately dismissed from the Force, had he not already retired.

Sometimes however, inappropriate behaviour from Custody Sergeants towards the detainees in their ‘trust’ goes beyond disrespect or incivility into actual physical violence. Such was the experience of another of my clients, Kevin who had been arrested by the Metropolitan Police. Kevin did not dispute that his arrest was lawful, and throughout his time in custody was calm and compliant with Police instructions, save for a minor incident when he threw a paper cup, half filled with water on the floor, in frustration at not being given appropriate medication for discomfort that he was suffering. This fairly trivial act of ‘rebellion’ by Kevin seems to have caught the eye of, and riled, the Custody Sergeant behind the desk, who I will identify by the name of Brown.

During his time in detention, Kevin requested permission to brush his teeth, and was accordingly escorted to the ‘shower room’ by an officer. Whilst he was brushing his teeth, Sergeant Brown, entered the shower room and ordered Kevin to “fucking” get back to his cell. Kevin quite reasonably protested about this, on the basis that the other officer had given him permission to be there, but Sergeant Brown ignored him, grabbed Kevin’s arm and started to march him back down the corridor to his cell. A second Officer took hold of Kevin’s other arm during this process, and so he was completely under the control of two Officers. Kevin again protested, saying that there was no need to manhandle him, and that he would walk back to the cell on his own, but was again ignored.

When they reached the door of the cell, Kevin turned to Sergeant Brown and asked him “What’s your fucking problem ? I had permission to brush my teeth. I didn’t refuse to go back into my cell.”

In response to this, Sergeant Brown said nothing, but stepped back and then with his clenched fist, punched Kevin in the face. As blood poured from Kevin’s nose, he was pushed into the cell and the door was slammed shut. His nose quickly became swollen and he was in immediate pain, shock and distress. Nevertheless, despite being well aware of the injury he had just inflicted upon this detained person, Custody Sergeant Brown waited over half an hour before calling for medical assistance for Kevin.

Shortly before calling for the Healthcare Professional to attend upon Kevin, Sergeant Brown made the entry in the Custody Record, which constituted, in my opinion, a clear attempt to cover up the unlawful force he had used upon my client (the abbreviation ‘DP’ stands for ‘detained person’; names have been changed) –

At approx 21:58h I walked down the male cell block to ensure that DP was in his cell as he had left FME’s room and became aggressive and thrown a cup of water over the custody floor, I saw DDO Harris near shower cubicle and I told him that DP needs to go into cell as custody was very busy and I needed him.  As I levelled with shower room I saw DP just standing there, I told him that he needed to go back to his cell as I needed DDO Harris, he just stood there staring at me, I entered the cubicle and took hold of DP’s arm to escort him as he became very vocal, swearing and threatening, he is a large built male, taller than myself.  PS Cartwright was behind me, DP leant down towards me pushing his forehead against mine, I feared he was about to assault me, I tried pushing him away with my left hand but he was tensing his body up, fearing for my personal safety I punched DP once in his face, this caused him to step backwards and away from me, PS Cartwright then pushed him into his cell, DP moved forward to get at us, PS Cartwright slammed the cell door shut.

At 23.08h it was recorded in the custody record by PC Purslow that Kevin wished to speak with an Inspector about the assault he had suffered.  It was clear from this, and subsequent entries in the custody record the staff at the station were well aware that Kevin (unsurprisingly) wanted to pursue a complaint in relation to what PS Brown had done to him.

At 00.18h it was recorded in the custody record by PS Cartwright that ICEFLO (photographs) had been taken of Kevin’s nose and the FME (Force Medical Examiner) had noted his injuries. 

Despite this the Metropolitan Police failed to open a complaint investigation and failed to preserve the CCTV footage which would have proved or disproved PS Brown’s account

When I subsequently commenced proceedings on behalf of Kevin, I invited the Court to draw the logical inference from this presumably wilful failure –

  1. PS Brown, in the entry in the custody record made at 22.29h falsely asserted that my client had pushed his forehead against that of PS Brown and falsely asserted that my client was tensing his body up;
  1. Despite being well aware that my client had initiated a complaint in relation to PS Brown’s actions against him, officers manifestly and presumably deliberately failed to record or action that complaint and failed to ensure that the CCTV footage was preserved; 
  1. The false assertions made in the custody record by PS Brown, and the failure of the Officers to action the complaint as set out above, added insult to injury and were an unconscionable attempt to mislead the Court to the detriment of my client and/or were done with the aim of concealing PS Brown’s unlawful conduct towards my client;

The injury sustained by Kevin was not a minor one; it was established that he had suffered a deviated nasal septum, for which a septo- rhinoplasty operation was required to improve his breathing and the shape of his nose.

Kevin’s mistreatment was all the more reprehensible because it came (literally) at the hands of the one Officer above all others whose duty was to ensure Kevin’s safety and wellbeing, which duty very much included making and preserving a proper record of everything that happened to Kevin during his time in detention – but who instead manipulated the Custody Record to disguise his own unlawful assault upon Kevin, tried to deny him his right to pursue a complaint and allowed to be deleted, the crucial video footage.

Although the Met initially filed a Defence denying liability (and endorsing Sergeant Brown’s version of events) they subsequently caved in and settled the claim well before Trial, agreeing to pay for the full cost of the operation Kevin required to fix his broken nose, and additional compensation on top of that for his pain and suffering, together with his legal fees.

The experiences of Catherine, Kevin and many of my clients are a warning that sometimes the real danger to a detained person, at a time when they are likely to be in a highly vulnerable and distressed state, can sadly come from the very person who is entrusted with responsibility for their care, the man whose ‘prisoner’ they are.

It is entirely right to expect the highest standards of behaviour from Custody Sergeants, and to hold them to account when they fall below those standards…sometimes far, far below.

(All names have been changed.)

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.