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Howard League blog · 9 Jul 2018

Notes from the cells in a city police station

I like poking about in places of detention, meeting the front line staff and the people being detained. Not just prisons, but police stations and secure hospitals.

I recently visited a main city police station with 60 purpose-built cells. The two custody sergeants took me through who happened to be there, mostly men for domestic or other alleged incidents of violence. I talked to two people. One is a rather sad story; the other, well, I will leave it to the end for you to find out.

I asked to speak to a young man who had been arrested prior to being recalled to prison. He told me he was 19 and when I asked how he felt about being recalled, he said he wasn’t too bothered as his four brothers were in the city prison so he would have company. It was just part of his life.

I was then taken to a cell to talk to a woman who had been arrested for knife crime. Imagine the cell – no natural light, little ventilation, completely blank walls and a cement plinth about 20 centimetres high with a plastic-coated thin cover.

I found a university teacher who had travelled in her car with her husband and small daughter to go to the immigration office for her interview. Because it was a long journey, she had fruit with her for her daughter, including a fruit knife to peel the apples.

She took the fruit and knife into the immigration office as she expected to have to spend hours waiting there. She told the security guards that she had the knife. The immigration staff called the police. She was arrested. Knife crime.

We were horrified… we urged her to get legal advice

I talked to the young female police officer who had arrested her, who was bemused by what she had had to do but said she had no discretion as the knife crime guidelines are tramlines.

I was horrified. I could foresee that everyone now was going to follow the strict guidelines and she could face prosecution, could lose her job, even be detained in an immigration detention centre and be deported, possibly after conviction and even imprisonment.

The chief constable, who I had met earlier that day, had arranged for me to be accompanied by a very impressive senior officer who was equally horrified. We both urged her to get legal advice.

We left her in her cell and went back to the desk sergeant and I said to him, just let her go. Don’t do anything. Let her go.

He did.

He referred it to the inspector and her case was ‘No Further Action’.

This was a courageous decision because it will show up on the statistics for the force as they took no further action on a knife crime case, and unless people know the story they could be criticised. Which is why I am telling the story. And, why politicians need to understand that, when they bow to cheap populism and impose strictures with little discretion, they end up with idiocy.

The immigration office acted badly, the police acted well, but the fault lies with the politicians.


  • Michael Brown says:

    I can’t agree that the fault here lies with politicians: this is clearly about the police and I say this is a serving officer. She was presumably arrested for possession of a sharply pointed instrument in a public place, contrary to s139 of hte Criminal Justice Act 1988. It is clearly within that provision, in sub-section (4), that it will be a defence to any charge for the person to show they had the item with them for a reasonable purpose. This is what allows trades people to carry various things, up to an including machetes if their work reasonably requires such tools.

    It is never the case that any ‘defences’ to offences must be put to a courtroom, the police have a legal duty to investigate in all directions around an offence. So firstly, she is more than happy to tell the Immigration Service that she has the item and why (to cut up fruit for her and her children); we may infer she did this because she didn’t want staff to be alarmed if someone suddenly appeared to have produced a knife; and the officers who turned up have a duty to investigate the avenues which confirm guilt AND innocence, in any criminal investigation.

    It seems reasonable to wonder why the arresting officer could have resolved that at the scene without an arrest; or if it really did go to custody, why the custody sergeant or supervisor couldn’t have authorised the approach that the inspector eventually did. As an inspector, I’d have been annoyed if professional police officers had made me get involved in that: it’s a basic matter of understanding volume, day to day offences.

    Policy can say what it wants, we police according to the law.

  • Jez says:

    Well done Ms Crook, you are absolutely right. In my view statistical data doesn’t give the whole picture and people need to know there are totally innocent people being affected by bills being passed without proper educated oversight and clear guidance. Sometimes there are innocent reasons why someone is carry such an item and the law needs to be flexible enough for an officer to use their own judgement.

  • Glad there are people like you who monitor the state of our prisons and police cells the public have no idea until one of their own relatives is arrested and charged thank you!

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