Welcome to my blog

I thought this would be a great way to tell everyone about the many interesting things that I do in my professional life as a researcher, writer and educator. At the moment, my interest is mainly focused on policing and more specifically on police custody i.e. where people are taken on arrest whilst a decision is reached about charge. Watch this space for updates on my whirlwind academic life.

About Me

My photo
Layla Skinns is a Senior Lecturer in criminology in the Centre for Criminological Research at the School of Law, University of Sheffield. Before joining the Centre for Criminological Research, Layla worked at the University of Cambridge, where she was the Adrian Socio-Legal Research Fellow at Darwin College and a Teaching Associate on the MSt. in Applied Criminology for senior police, prison and probation staff. Whilst working as a Research Fellow at Darwin College, she co-organised the prestigious Darwin College Lecture Series on the theme of risk. Her qualifications are: MA (Hons) Sociology and Psychology, University of Edinburgh, 2000; MPhil Criminological Research, University of Cambridge, 2001 and PhD Criminology, University of Cambridge, 2005

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Overnight detention of children in police cells - Interviews with BBC Radio Sheffield

Hear me being interviewed on BBC Radio Sheffield on 13 December 2011. First, by Toby Foster on the breakfast show, along with Andrew Nielsen from the Howard League:

Radio Interview 1 by Layla Skinns

And later by Rony Robinson:

Radio Interview 2 by Layla Skinns

Overnight detention of children in police cells - report out today

I am extremely delighted to say that the report I have researched and written for the Howard League has been published today. It uses a range of different data sources to draw attention to an extremely important issue, namely, the overnight detention of children. In around half the police services in England and Wales there were 53,000 overnight detentions in 2008 and 2009 of children aged between 10 and 16 years. The reasons for this are complex, but a key reason seems to be a break-down in the referral process between the police and local authority when children are charged and their bail is refused. The report also highlights improvements that could be made for children at risk overnight detention, such as greater use of police bail or the use of emergency foster care.

A link to the summary report can be found on the front page of the Howard League's website. The news release issued by the Howard League can be found here:

News Release

Howard League calls to ban overnight police custody for children under 14

With tens of thousands of children aged under 16 being detained overnight in police cells the majority of whom are innocent of any crime, the Howard League for Penal Reform has called for a ban on overnight police detention of under 14s, calling it a ‘dangerous and frightening practice that does more harm than good’. The charity hopes to spare least 11,500 children between the age of 10 to 13 the trauma of being detained overnight in a police cell every year.

According to figures released today in a report published by the Howard League on the overnight detention of children in police cells, at least 53,000 children aged under 16 were detained overnight in just over half the country’s police cells in 2008 and 2009. The report also recommends raising the age of criminal responsibility in line with European standards of 14 years. This would stem the flow of children into police custody.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform said, "I was horrified to discover how prevalent the practice of holding young children in police cells for one or even several nights across the country.   The figures from the report are still an underestimation as only half of police forces responded to our FOI request.  

What children need is somewhere safe, not somewhere secure. From conversations we have had with the police it seems that some children are being held in police cells for child protection reasons, for example when a child is found out alone at night. The Howard League is warning that this will increase as local authorities face cuts to children's services. If parents can’t be relied upon to provide a safe place for these children, it is up to the local authority.  A police cell is not an appropriate place for children, and this commonplace, dangerous and frightening practice does more harm than good.”

Dr Layla Skinns from the University of Sheffield, who researched and wrote the report for the Howard League, is concerned about the complexity of the legislation affecting the overnight detention of children and more importantly by its effects on children. She said:  

“There appears to be a break-down in the referral process between police custody and local authority accommodation. Local authority accommodation does not appear to be being provided because there isn’t the availability or because requests for it are not being made in the first place. Spending the night in a police cell is likely to be a frightening and intimidating experience for children who will be placed in the same environment as adults. This needs to change. Other options need to be explored, such as greater use of police bail or emergency foster care. And there needs to be less complexity in the legislation and greater accountability when the referral process breaks down.”

In the report she has also drawn attention to the legal anomaly which means that 17 year olds are treated as adults in police custody despite being regarded as children in other parts of the criminal justice system. This means that they enter the system as adults, but if they end up in court will be tried as children.

The report also reveals that police training on the treatment and overnight detention of children is limited so that police are uncertain about their powers and responsibilities, sometimes detaining a child overnight when other options could provide the place of safety that they need. The charity contends that laws designed to safeguard children should be applied appropriately by the police or children will be put at risk.

The Howard League believes many children are being arrested and detained unnecessarily.  At least a quarter of a million children were arrested last year – including 22,135 aged 10 to 13 – but only 81,500 were sentenced by a court and only 4,200 were sentenced to custody.

Frances Crook added, "This suggests that for two thirds of children who are put through the trauma and indignity of an arrest and detention in a police station, it was unnecessary."

Of the 53,000 children detained overnight in 2008 and 2009:

·       10,845 were girls (21%).

·       10,050 were black and minority ethnic children (20%)

·       Four were under the age of 10, which is the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales

Further information

Sophie Willett

020 7241 7866        0755 334 5522

Please find a copy of the summary of the report Overnight detention of children in police cells (LINKS TO WEBSITE)

ISDN line number 020 7923 4196

Dr Layla Skinns is a Lecturer in Criminology at the Centre for Criminological Research, School of Law, University of Sheffield. She has conducted a wide array of research on subjects such as crime prevention, multi-agency criminal justice partnerships, drug users and the criminal justice system, restorative justice and policing. She has recently published, ‘Police custody: Governance, legitimacy and reform in the criminal justice process’ (Routledge, 2011).

Monday, 3 October 2011

More conferences and talks

Last week I went to two really interesting but quite different events:

1.      A one-day event on "Policing at a time of contraction and constraint: Re-imagining the role and function of contemporary policing", which was sponsored by the British Academy and convened by Professor Andrew Millie (Edghill University) and Dr Karen Bullock (Surrey University). Speakers Robert Reiner, Ben Bowling, Nick Tilley, Mike Hough and Simon Holdaway. The focus of the event was on discussing what the role and function of the police should be, who should determine this and through what mechanisms should policing be delivered. Many thanks to Andrew and Karen for organising and inviting me to this stimulating event.
2.      A Custody Officers’ one-day seminar, run by the National Custody Officer Forum (NCF), which is affiliated to the Sergeant’s Central Committee of the Police Federation. This was the first event of its kind, which provided an interesting window into the issues that are currently significant to custody officers. For example, Michael Zander spoke about the recent Hookway case, which affected police bail decisions. Whilst the new chair of the NCF, Sgt Eddie Entwhistle, explored civilianization and privatization and its continuing impacts on custody officers.

Whilst it was less stressful to simply attend rather than present at these events, I’m also looking forward to presenting a few ideas of my own at the following conferences and events between now and Christmas:

·         Invited talk on ‘Plural policing and police custody’ at a conference on ‘Preventing deaths in police care’, which is organised by Capita, 19 October 2011. This will be attended by the police (largely Inspectors and Custody Officers) and other CJ practitioners. Unfortunately, I am unable to talk about the overnight detention of children, which is what I originally agreed to speak about.
·         Invited talk on ‘Doing research on police custody: some notes from the field’, Criminal Justice Centre, School of Law, Warwick University, 22-24 November 2011.
·         ‘Diversity, difference and vulnerability in police custody: key issues from comparative research in four common-law jurisdictions’, American Society of Criminology conference, 16-19 November, 2011, Washington, D.C.
·         Invited paper on ‘The role of the law in policing’, at a conference on ‘Tides and currents in police theories’ convened by the Flemish Centre for Police Studies and the Dutch Foundation for Society, Security and Police, 12-13 December 2011.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Why (democratic) police custody matters

Like many others I have been following the Troy Davis case carefully and wondering how and why the death penalty continues to be used in a number of states in America, whilst flying in the face of justice. As Troy Davis’ case and others like it show, the stakes are high during the police investigation, but also in police custody more generally. Around the world, police custody contributes to suspects' and victims' access to justice (e.g. it affects whether a case gets to court and whether an appropriate conviction and sentence is secured). Police custody also contributes to social justice. As Peter Manning points out in his new book, Democratic Policing, the links between crime and social inequality mean that “policing is an aspect of formal social ordering and … it operates as an agency for the redistribution of life chances in a population" (2010: xii). Drawing on Rawls’ theory of ‘justice as fairness’ and the ‘difference principle’ he argues that democratic policing should strive to minimize harm, meaning that “any action planned, stated or enacted, should not increase inequalities" (2010: 65).

It is difficult to see how police custody in a large number of states in America minimizes harm and decreases inequalities. Firstly, requirements that suspects in police custody be informed of their right to silence and to counsel - brought about by the Miranda ruling in 1966 - have been undermined and diminished by subsequent rulings by the Supreme Court and other lower courts up and down the country (Weisselberg, 2008: 1599). Secondly, police training – at least in California which was the focus of Weisselberg’s research - encourages the police to view all suspects irrespective of whether they are a child, mentally ill or intellectually impaired as capable of understanding their rights and making a reasoned choice about exercising these rights. For instance one police training manual stated that:

“Being mentally slow, uneducated, drunk, injured and/or criminally unsophisticated does not mean we cannot get a valid waiver out of a person …” (cited in Weisselberg, 2008: 1574).

Yet there is a body of social science research which shows that the Miranda warning and waiver regime is beyond the comprehension of most suspects due to their low educational base and particularly for suspects who are children, mentally ill or intellectually impaired (Weisselberg, 2008: 1576-7).

Though Weisselberg’s research focused on California, there is a great deal of consonance between his research findings and my own, albeit that my research in the U.S. took place in a large city in a different jurisdiction and was based on conversations with and observation of police officers and suspects rather than an analysis of police training manuals. Whilst I still need more time to fully analyse the data from my research in the U.S., it was clear that police officers worked on the assumption of more or less treating everyone the same, including when giving them their Miranda warnings and seeking waivers. For example, when a child was in police custody they were kept in a cell which was in a different part of the holding area to adults. However, there were no attempts to help children better understand their Miranda rights or to alleviate their fears. I was told that parental permission was mostly sought by the police to talk to the child but that nine times out of ten parents were happy for the interrogation to proceed without them attending the police station at all. Similarly, I noted this in one of my field notes:

Two young black boys were arrested for shop-lifting $50 worth of stuff. They were detained from 3.40pm to 11.30pm when they were released into their parents care. This was longer than the 10 hours. One of these boys was 10 years old and the other was 15 years old. The younger boy could hardly sign his name (USAPO2).

Overall, police practices seemed to only pay lip service to the vulnerabilities and welfare needs of children.

So what does this have to do with Troy Davis? Whilst reading and thinking about these issues I happened across an article in The Guardian on Troy Davis and unfairness in the U.S. criminal justice system, which mentioned the related case of Holly Wood. He was recently executed in Alabama, in spite of him having an IQ of 59, which is substantially lower than the IQ of most. In his case, his execution went ahead in part because his lawyer failed to raise the issue of his intellectual impairment early enough in court proceedings. What struck me about this case was that surely the earliest point to recognise such intellectual impairment is in police custody? Intellectual impairment can affect whether a suspect understands their due process rights, whether they waive them and it can increase their suggestibility during police interrogations. This means that in police custody and not just at court and beyond, the metaphorical playing field needs to be in some way levelled for all vulnerable suspects.

Here, lessons can be learned from other countries. For example, in England children in police custody should be provided with access to an appropriate adult (AA) who may be their parent, guardian or carer from the local authority accommodation where they live or a social worker or some other responsible adult aged over 18 years who is not employed by the police (Police and Criminal Evidence Act Code of Practice C, 2008: 1.7). There is also statutory requirement for local Youth Offending Teams to provide an AA service for child suspects, which is normally comprised of trained volunteers. The idea for AAs originated from the ‘Confait Case’ which highlighted that vulnerable suspects can be pressured into falsely confessing to murder (Dixon et al., 1990). This led to AAs being given the role of advising suspects, observing whether interviews are conducted fairly and properly and facilitating communication between the suspect and the police. Admittedly the research evidence is mixed about whether AAs meet the needs of children (see for example, Skinns, 2010a; Pierpoint, 2008; Jacobson, 2008: 31; Pierpoint, 2006; Pierpoint, 2004; Quinn and Jackson, 2003: 47-49; Gudjonsson, Medford and Pearse, 2003). Nonetheless the requirement for children to have an AA serves as a reminder that children and other vulnerable suspects need additional support whilst in police custody and that equality is not about treating everyone the same, rather about achieving the same impact.

So what might we conclude from this about democratic police custody? Democratic police custody matters because by levelling-off the experiences of suspects it can prevent miscarriages of justice (which is of vital importance in places where the death penalty exists), as well as preventing social injustice. That said, in some states in the U.S., police custody is not as democratic as it might and should be. It adheres to some of the principles of democratic policing such as that the police be constrained and legalistically guided in their dealing with citizens and fair in procedure” (Manning, 2010: 65-66). After all, the law permits police officers to treat all suspects as having the same capacity to understand and decide about their due process rights. However, the consequences of this are undemocratic, according to Manning’s (2010: 65) definition, in that police custody fails to minimize harms and to decrease inequality for vulnerable suspects.

NB. These musings are the beginnings of a paper I am giving on ‘Diversity, difference and vulnerability in police custody: key issues from comparative research in four common-law countries’ at the American Society of Criminology Conference, 16-19 November 2011, Washington D.C.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Forthcoming edited collection - Risk

Hello readers,

Apologies for my absence, but I've been on a rainy holiday to the beautiful Ardnamurchan and then the Edinburgh Festival, followed by a wonderful trip to Barcelona.

I've got another book coming out very soon on 31 August. This is an edited collection of essays based on the theme of risk and called rather imaginatively Risk (CUP, 2011).

These essays stem from the Darwin College Lecture Series 2010, which were organised by myself and my two esteemed colleagues, Dr Michael Scott and Dr Tony Cox. This was a project I was involved whilst I was the Adrian Socio-Legal Research Fellow at Darwin College, Cambridge.

We all worked extremely hard to produce a fanastic lecture series. For the uninitiated, the Darwin College Lecture Series are public lectures throughout Lent term. Each year a different theme is chosen by the organisers and speakers from a range of disciplines who are renowned for their ability to communicate in an accessible way are invited to respond to this chosen theme.

Risk proved to be a theme that captured the moment, mired as we were in 2009/10 in the economic down-turn. We also had a great line-up of speakers. One of the lectures, given by Ben Goldacre, was one of the most popular in the 25 year history of the lecture series, rivalling only the lecture given by Desmond Tutu over a decade ago.

Anyway, I think the book makes for a great read. Here's a bit of blurb about it:

Recent events from the economic down-turn to climate change mean that there has never been a better time to be thinking about and trying to better understand the concept for risk. In this book, prominent and eminent speakers from fields as diverse as statistics to classics, neuroscience to criminology, politics to astronomy, as well as speakers embedded in the media and in government have put their ideas down on paper in a series of essays that broaden our understanding of the meaning of risk.

The essays in this book come from the 2010 Darwin College Lecture Series. In each year of this lecture series, distinguished scholars skilled at communicating in an accessible way are invited to respond to a specific theme. In 2010, the chosen theme was risk. After twenty-five years, this lecture series is one of the most popular public lecture series at the University of Cambridge. The risk lectures in 2010 were amongst the most popular yet and, in essay form, they make for a lively and engaging read for specialists and non-specialists alike.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Conference update

I promised an update about how my conferences went, so here it is! The British Society of Criminology Conference (BSC), Northumbria University, Newcastle was a really enjoyable event, not least because there were many interesting policing panels included in the conference programme, as well as the first meeting of the newly established BSC Policing Network. The conference began with Professor Robert Reiner being presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award with many deservedly kind words being said about him. One such comment was that he knows a good thing when he sees it, which filled me with trepidation about what he might say as one of the ‘critics’ of my book. I need not have worried …well, not too much! He and the two other ‘critics’ in my ‘author meets critics panel – Professor David Dixon and Dr Megan O’Neill - were thoughtful and considered, yet probing in their comments.

In sum, the book was described as making “a significant contribution to the field”, particularly in terms of its insightfulness in the comparisons drawn between police custody and prisons. It was also described as “theoretically sophisticated” and that the drawing together of theories about governance and legitimacy were beneficial. However, my ‘critics’ would have liked a more sociological than socio-legal account, with more time being also being devoted to explaining my research methods, as well as to researching the police investigation. The comments of the reviewers should hopefully appear in book reviews in the not to distant future, including in Criminology and Criminal Justice.

After the BSC, I dashed straight off to a stop and search workshop organised by Professor Ben Bowling (KCL) and Dr Leanne Weber (Monash University). This was a truly wonderful and intellectually stimulating event which reminded me of why I am an academic. Speakers from around the world – from Canada, the USA, Japan, The Netherlands, India, South Africa and Australia to name a few - were invited to speak about stop and search practices, linking these micro-level practices to macro-level global trends such as populist punitiveness and the criminalisation of immigrants. The organisers created a truly collegiate and collaborative atmosphere, which prompted a terrific amount of thought-provoking discussion. Look out for the papers from this workshop in a special issue of Policing and Society, which is due out in a few months time.

National Custody Officer Forum – Wymondham, 20 July 2011

Yesterday I gave a talk for the National Custody Officer Forum about findings from my book. Since my talk was shortly before a visit to the nearby Wymondham Police Investigation Centre which is a facility shared by Norfolk/Suffolk Constabularies and has been built through a public finance initiative (PFI), I focused on chapter six of my book on plural policing and police custody. This chapter examines the role of civilians in police custody, who are either employed by the police or by private security companies and work alongside police officers.

The use of PFIs is not unusual in police custody, though as yet I have not come across any research on how many there are up and down the country. A PFI is when the private sector work in partnership with the police to design, build and finance a police custody facility and the police pay to use it. Contracts between the police and the private sector are typically issued for 25-30 years. Sometimes the private sector also provide staff who work in the custody area, alongside custody officers (who are police sergeants). This was certainly the case in Sunnyside, the pseudonym I gave to the PFI site in my research. It contrasted with the second site in my research, Gormiston, which is a police-run custody area, involving custody officers and civilians employed by the police.

PFIs are controversial. Some are in favour, saying that they save money, in part because they open up the public sector to competition. For example, Michael Gove’s has recently supported a £2bn PFI programme for building new schools. Others are not. PFIs have been described as an “elegant piece of hire purchase”, which effectively keeps the cost of facilities ‘off the books’ (Johnston, Buttons and Williamson, 2008: 227). Moreover, there is an assumption that PFIs are cost-effective, but the evidence about whether they yield the anticipated savings remains unclear. Of course, there are also the moral objections about profit being prioritised over justice.

What is curious about these developments in relation to police custody is that they have received little public debate. For example, I just searched ‘Google News’ under the terms ‘PFI and police custody’ and ‘PFI and policing’ and this generated less than 5 ‘hits’. Yet if you search under the terms ‘prisons and privatization UK’ you generate about 18 ‘hits’. Anecdotally, when I talk to taxi-drivers, neighbours or other members of the public about what I do, nearly all are surprised to hear that police custody has been subject to this form of privatization.

Without giving away too much of what I say in my book or of what I said during my presentation yesterday, my research suggests a mixture of findings about the effects of civilianization and privatization on police, civilian police staff and suspects.

Finally, many thanks to the various people that invited me to talk and made me feel welcome yesterday. There was lots of interesting and lively discussion, which showed how fruitful conversations can be between academics and practitioners.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Conference season is nigh

I've got a couple of events coming up over the next few weeks. The first is on Friday 17 June. I am giving a research seminar for the Metropolitan Police Service about the findings from my study of police custody in England, based on my recently published book. The details of this talk are as follows:

The aim of this seminar it to provide feedback to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) from a recent study comparing two police custody suites, one of which is in the MPS Area. This study examined police custody from start to finish, considering who works there and what it is like for them and for the suspects who are detained there. A key focus of the study was the civilianization and privatization of police custody. Consequently, data were collected in the custody suite in the MPS, which was staffed by police officers and non-warranted civilians (designated detention officers), as well as in a custody suite in a different police service area, which had been refurbished and was managed and largely staffed by a private security company as part of a public-finance initiative. The seminar will provide a ‘flavour’ of the findings from the study, exploring conditions in police custody; staff and suspect experiences of working or being detained there; suspect access to their rights and entitlements; police and police staff roles and responsibilities and relationships with each other and with suspects; relationships between the police and other key criminal justice practitioners such as drug legal advisors, medical staff, appropriate adults and drug workers. To conclude, we will examine what can be learned from the study about improving police custody practices.

I have also organised an 'author meets critics' panel at the British Society of Criminology Conference 4-6 July at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle. The 'critics' are Professor David Dixon, University of New South Wales; Dr Megan O'Neill, University of Salford; and Professor Robert Reiner, London School of Economics. They will each offer their comments and critical reflections on my book, Police Custody: Governance, legitimacy and reform in the criminal justice process

'Inspecting' the inspectors

The last time I wrote I was about to give a paper at the British Society of Criminology Yorkshire and Humber inaugural event. This seemed to go well. One of the points I made in this conference presentation is that my research showed that decisions about suspects in police custody are made on a much more discretionary basis in the jurisdiction in the U.S., compared to the jurisdiction in Australia and in Ireland and England and Wales. One member of the audience pointed out to me, though, if such decisions are largely made on a discretionary basis, then this probably amounts to no due process at all for suspects.

Since then, I've finished the marking for my new module on policing in a global context. Since this module drew to a close, a few students have reported to me how much they enjoyed it, saying it was one of the most interesting ones that they have taken during their time in Sheffield. I hope this is true across the board. Thanks are definitely due to my colleague, Matthew Bacon, who led all the seminars for the module and who helped enhance students' experiences and understanding no end.

Recently, I also had a great opportunity to shadow a police custody inspection. This involved observing and talking to staff from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabularies and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons, as they went about their business of jointly inspecting police custody facilities in one police service. These inspection processes were not in place when I conducted my research on police custody in 2006/7 and for this reason it was extremely interesting to see how they were approached. Thanks are due to all those who made it possible for me to accompany these inspectors. The reports from all of the inspections conducted over the last three years are publicly available and provide a vital window into this aspect of policing.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Police interviews: information gathering or accusatorial?

Well, it's been a long time since I last posted, not least because I have been engrossed in teaching my new module 'Police and Policing in a Global Context', which is now drawing to a close. The last two lectures are next week.

Next week, I am also presenting a paper at the British Society of Criminology Yorkshire and Humberside branch inaugural meeting, which is being held at the University of Leeds on 11 May (see this link). The paper is about the different rights and entitlements available to police suspects on paper and in practice in four common-law jurisdictions: England and Ireland and jurisdictions in Australia and America. This paper has led me to think about why it is that different police practices become embedded and regarded as acceptable to the police, at least.

I shall give you an example. When it comes to conducting police interviews countries like England and Wales and Australia have begun to adopt an information-gathering approach to conducting police interviews which is known by its acronym, PEACE (which stands for preparation and planning, engage and explain, account, clarifcation and evaluation). Whilst Ireland and America have not, relying instead on an accusatorial approach. Here is an excerpt from one of my field notes from America, which exemplifies what an accusatorial approach means:

Later, I was introduced to one of the other white male detectives. He said to me, “So, what do you wanna know?” I hesitated. I said “what kind of practices do you use when you interview suspects”, he replied “what when we make them confess?” I said, “well, you can tell me about that if you like”. He also said that “sometimes we remove their clothes for evidentiary purposes, if you know what I mean, and leave them sitting there in their underwear. We also try to show them who’s boss because every time they want something they have to ask me. For example, if they want a drink of water they have to ask me or if they want to go to the bathroom they have to ask me.”

I then asked whether they varied their practices between suspects and how they knew which practices to use with which suspects. The detective said to me, “well, with you, for example, I would shout at you until you cried”, then, turning to his female colleague, he said, “with her I would feed her, as she’s a tough cookie and I would tried to persuade her by giving her food”.

I found this conversation extremely intimidating, although at the same time laughable because he was conforming to the stereotypical ‘bad cop’. I’m not sure if he was trying to show-off or intimidate me. Certainly, these detectives had engaged in some leg-pulling earlier, saying “oh, we hold a phone-book to their heads and then hit them”.

Later, I relayed this conversation to one of the young police officers in the custody area and he said that this team of detectives were known as ‘bad asses’

I have whiled away many an hour in a police station as a researcher, nonetheless I found the attitudes of these 'bad ass' detectives difficult to comprehend, not least because of their short-sightedness. As it turns out there is a growing body of evidence that shows that such accusatorial interview methods are more likely to yield false confessions when compared with the information gathering approach (see the systematic review by Redlich et al. 2010).

As to the issue of why such practices had come to be regarded as acceptable in this particular jurisdiction in the US, I am struggling to find the answer. Brodeur (2010: 71) says that discretion is the hallmark of American policing, so this may contribute to a permissive environment in which such practices are allowed to flourish relatively unchecked. Moreover, historically-speaking, there has been a degree of acceptance that the police should be allowed to use some forms of 'persuasion'; the 'third degree' was soon replaced by psychological methods of persuasion and hence to this day some forms of deception are permitted in the police interview (Leo, 2008). However, I am sure there are more reasons. Answers on a postcard .....

Anyway, that's enough of my musings for now. I shall report back on how my conference paper goes down.

Friday, 4 February 2011

police custody as 'miniature prisons'

I've recently come across information about this forthcoming BBC documentary on police custody (see the link below). From the information on the BBC website, it seems that some of the insights contained in the programme may well be accurate. For instance, the idea that police custody is comparable with prison is something I explore in my book (Skinns, 2011: 200-202). In many respects, police custody does resemble prison in that, like prisoners, suspects experience a loss of control and limitations on their freedom. Police custody is also like prison in that they are both volatile and fraught places where staff-suspect relationships are paramount. The main exception to the idea that police custody is like prison can be found in the fact that police custody is not formally a place of punishment. Those in police custody are only suspects after all.

Another idea contained in the information in the programme also seemed to ring true. In this blurb, they say that police officers have to act with humanity yet with authority. My argument on this issue is that police officers found it more difficult to juggle this conflicting role compared to civilian detention officers. Being caring and compassionate has not been found to be a key feature of the occupational culture of rank and file police officers, whilst the use of authority has (see Skinns, 2011: 158).

However, the idea in the programme that custody officers are independent is simply not borne out by the evidence, which shows that custody officers tend to agree with their colleagues, for example, when it comes to authorizing a suspects' detention. Few custody officers reverse the decision of their colleague when a suspect arrives at the police station (Skinns, 2011: 4). This finding it not altogether surprising when one places it in the context of an understanding of the police occupational culture, a key aspect of which is solidarity.

Nonetheless, I remain open-minded about what other insights this programme might yield. Police custody as the key gateway to the criminal justice process deserves to be recognised as such by the wider public.