The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Sides of Police Custody Officers

Photo of Daniel Fitzsimmons, Chartered Legal Executive, who discusses the role of police custody officers in this blog post.
Daniel Fitzsimmons, Chartered Legal Executive, discusses the role of police custody officers here.

By Daniel Fitzsimmons, Chartered Legal Executive

Last week I explained how Cheshire Police unlawfully detained my client Sam Povey in what appears to be a breach of the Police Code of Ethics.

This week I want to look at the role of the police custody officers in Sam’s case.

(Mr Povey kindly allowed me to use his details. The facts in this blog post are based on his version of events, some of which are disputed.)

The facts

Sam had his mobile phone stolen. He reported the theft to the police. They recovered the phone and agreed to meet him outside Warrington Police Station one night up to 11pm.

Mr Povey had recently been subject to a 10pm curfew but was now free of that restriction.

As arranged, two Cheshire Police officers met Sam outside Warrington Police Station after 10pm. One of the officers told my client that he was in breach of his curfew and arrested him. This was despite Sam’s protests that he was not subject to any curfew conditions. The police officers took Mr Povey to Runcorn Police Station and presented him to a custody officer for processing.

The Custody Officer checked Sam’s record. He found that Mr Povey was telling the truth, so did not authorise continued detention.

The police kept Sam in a holding cell in the custody suite while they dealt with matters. When leaving the cell about an hour after arrest, the arresting officer accused Mr Povey of damaging the cell door. He had not, but this time the Custody Officer accepted his colleague’s comments and authorised detention for criminal damage.

The police held Sam for a further 8 hours 56 minutes. He was only released when a shift change led to a new Custody Officer considering matters. The new Custody Officer checked CCTV footage and found that Mr Povey did not damage the door.

He authorised Sam’s release without charge.

Mr Povey contacted Donoghue Solicitors to bring a civil action against Cheshire Police. We represented him on a “no win no fee” basis. With our help, he recovered £4,250 plus his legal costs. Sam did not have to attend court and was vindicated in his decision to take the police to task.

What Do Police Custody Officers Do?

The custody officer has a special role. Custody officers work in police station custody suites. They have the rank of sergeant as a minimum and are responsible for the care and welfare of detained suspects.

The arresting officer must present the suspect to the police custody officer, explain the circumstances of arrest, and seek authority to detain. The custody officer must decide if there is enough evidence to justify a criminal charge before authorising detention.

If the custody officer does not think there is enough evidence at that time, they can still authorise detention if there are

  1. a) reasonable grounds for believing that detention is necessary to secure or preserve evidence relating to the arrest, or
  2. b) to obtain evidence by questioning.

The custody officer must authorise the suspect’s release if they do not think that there is sufficient evidence to justify a charge immediately, or that evidence will come forward during detention.

The Good Custody Officer

Police act unlawfully when they deprive someone of their liberty without lawful cause. The burden of proof is on the police, not the subject, to justify detention on a minute-by-minute basis. Arresting officers and custody officers are under the same duty.

In my opinion, Sam’s initial arrest was unlawful. His explanation should have created doubt in the arresting officer’s mind. The officer could have easily checked John’s story. They were standing outside a police station after all. Even if this was not an option, the arresting officer could have arranged a voluntary interview instead of depriving Sam of his liberty.

Thankfully, this officer was not the only one involved.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) rules meant that the Custody Officer was under a duty to check Sam’s record, which showed that he was telling the truth. Sam’s one hour in police detention could have been longer if the Custody Officer simply accepted the arresting officer’s story. Ultimately, this duty helped limit Sam’s time in custody and his compensation. This was a good thing for Mr Povey, the police, and Cheshire taxpayers.

The Bad

The same Custody Officer failed in his duty moments later by authorising Sam’s detention for criminal damage. It would have taken moments to check the CCTV footage. (In most stations is accessible from the Custody Officer’s desk.) If the Custody Officer did his job, he would have found that my client did not damage the door and, again, overridden the word of his arresting officer and released Mr Povey from police custody. But he didn’t, leading to Sam’s detention for nearly nine hours.

The Ugly

In my opinion, the arresting officer(s) in Sam’s case acted unethically. The police unlawfully arrested my client twice. But they are not the only ones responsible. The first Custody Officer failed in his duty to check the second allegation of criminal damage when he authorised detention, or later. It took a second Custody Officer’s intervention to free Sam. He correctly applied the same rules the first Custody Officer should have followed. In this respect, the first Custody Officer was at least as much to blame for Sam’s unlawful arrest as the arresting officer. As a senior officer, this police staff member should have known better. His conduct was inexcusable.

Daniel Fitzsimmons helps victims of police misconduct throughout England and Wales. Contact him for expert advice here.