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This briefing forms part of a series about police powers. The briefing police powers: an introduction provides an overview of police powers and links to other relevant briefings.

The police have powers, set out in Part IV and Part V of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), to detain those they have arrested on suspicion of committing a crime. The police have separate powers to detain those suspected of terrorism offences under Part V and Schedule 8 of the Terrorism Act 2000The detention of a suspect is often crucial to a police investigation. It allows officers to question them and collect their biometric details. This information helps the police to determine whether to charge a suspect with a crime.

The police also have powers to detain adults for their own (or other’s) safety under section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. However, adults detained under section 136 of the 1983 Act can only be held in a police station in exceptional circumstances.

The police detain people in custody suites which are normally situated within large police stations. There are around 210 custody suites across England & Wales. Individual police forces are responsible for how many custody suites they have and where they are situated.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) jointly inspect police custody. They measure forces against their expectations for police custody. They also monitor compliance with statutory guidance on detention powers (PACE Code C) and College of Policing (the body responsible for professional standards in policing) guidance on detention and custody.

Vulnerable people in custody

There have been longstanding concerns with the delivery of police custody and particularly the treatment of vulnerable people in custody.

In 2015 HMICFRS (then HMIC) published a thematic inspection of the welfare of vulnerable people in police custody, which was followed in 2017 by Dame Elish Angiolini independent review into deaths and serious incidents in police custody. Both Dame Elish and HMICFRS recommended major changes to the police’s approach to vulnerable people and suggested that other public services should play a greater role in caring for vulnerable people who come into contact with the police.

Since Dame Eilish’s Review the Government have legislated to minimise the use of police custody for those with severe mental health needs. They asked the College of Policing to revise its guidance on detention and custody and are working to ensure that every custody suite has access to ‘liaison and diversion services’ for those with mental health needs or substance addiction.

Despite significant political scrutiny on custody since Dame Elish’s Review, concerns have persisted. HMICFRS and HMIP have said that “forces continue to improve their custody services” but that they “weren’t seeing much improvement in outcomes for detainees”. The Inspectorates said the “capacity of other agencies to help forces meet the needs of detainees, and meet their own statutory responsibilities, remained a difficult problem.”


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