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

Friday, 20 December 2013

Making an impact?

In the world of social science research, there is ever increasing pressure on academics to be able to show that their research makes an impact, with impact being built into grant applications, at least for some funders like the Economic and Social Research Council through 'Pathways to Impact' statements. Indeed, in my latest study on 'good' police custody, impact is an integral part of it, in that one of the aims of the research is produce a set of benchmarks setting out what the research shows about 'good' police custody practices and, in addition, create a survey tool for police forces to monitor their performance against these benchmarks on an on-going basis.

The focus on impact is laudable. Indeed, one of the reasons why I became an academic was in the hope that in some small way my research would be able to make a difference to someone's life and to society, more generally. I still hang on to that - perhaps idealistic - dream. At the same time, there is definitely a debate to be had about the potentially stifling effects of the growing attention paid to impact in the social sciences. My concern is that the focus on impact may obscure the quest for understanding, knowledge and for learning, which are all laudable aims in themselves and which were also part of the reason why I became an academic. 

My other concern is that the focus on impact might also consign theory and the more scholarly aspects of social science research to the cutting-room floor, at least until busy academics can find the time to pick up these pieces again and mould them into publications for consumption by our peers. Yet, theory should be at the heart of any academic discipline as it can be used to test, refute and confirm hypotheses, but can also lead to a development of theory. Though, the exact role played by theory in research is contentious, its centrality to research is not.

 Anyway, I digress, what I wanted to write is that in a few small ways I think my research is slowly percolating its way through the ether and is beginning to make an impact. First of all, I was delighted to hear the news that the provision of appropriate adults was to be extended to 17 years olds through a revision in the PACE Codes of Practice in October 2013. An anomaly in the law meant that, hitherto, 17 year olds were classified as adults in the police station, unlike in other parts of the criminal justice system. The report that I researched and wrote research for the Howard League on the overnight detention of children is one of the few studies to have flagged up this important issue and I would hope, therefore, that it was used to contribute to the public debate and subsequent change in government policy.  

Second, today, I rather excitedly discovered that my research about access to legal advice in police stations (Skinns, 2011) was included in discussions about the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill 2013:Equality Impact Assessment. In particular, it has been used in discussions about when a person's right of access to a solicitor arises, how this is communicated to the person and the circumstances in which this right can be waived, taking into account the likely vulnerabilities of detainees. Let’s hope that these provisions are adopted in law in the near future.

 I hope that my new research on ‘good’ police custody will also make a similar, if not greater contribution to the world of policing and beyond, though it will probably be a few years before I am in a position to judge this. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

£500 bursary for CCR Visiting Fellows

Dear Readers

In conjunction with colleagues, I have been in the process of re-developing the Visiting Fellow scheme for the Centre for Criminological Research (CCR), School of Law, University of Sheffield. The aim of the scheme is to foster knowledge exchange and research collaborations between CCR members and scholars from other Universities in the UK or abroad. Please see here for further details about the scheme and expectations of visitors.

Further to this, we are delighted to announce that from 2013/14 we will be offering an annual bursary of up to £500 for members of staff of any level of seniority who wish to spend time visiting myself or any other colleague in CCR.

CCR is one of the oldest criminology centres in the UK, with a world-leading reputation and including staff with a wide range of criminological interests. I have found it to be a wonderful place to work for the four years that I have been there thus far. Any visitor would be welcomed into its vibrant research community and its collegial atmosphere.

Please get in touch if you are interested to find out more on L.Skinns@sheffield.ac.uk


Police custody: plus ça change?

In a recent review of my 2011 book on police custody, the eminent policing scholar, Robert Reiner, noted how fascinating it was to learn about how much (or rather how little) had changed since his own study of police custody practices in the early years of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. This is in spite of the “seemingly massive changes in the policing world, not to speak of wider society, in the intervening decades”, he says. In this review, he later notes that “[t]he overall feeling conveyed by [the book] is that for all the superficial changes at the routine operational level, plus ça change is the main theme. For all the ceaseless fashion parade of new discourses and initiatives, the everyday practice of policing is structured by macro political-economic and cultural processes that have changed in ways that intensify the patterns observed by the classic police ethnographies of the 1960s and 1970s.”

His insightful comments about the overall direction of the book through the notion of plus ça change (i.e. the idea that everything changes, yet it all stays the same), was the focus of a talk that I gave on Friday 1 November 2014 as part of the Innocence Network UK annual conference. What I argued was that aspects of policing (of relevance to police custody) have fundamentally altered for the better through the improved regulation of police custody, particularly through the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the associated Codes of Practice, but also through ECHR/ECtHR and the UK’s signature of the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (known as OPCAT), which as has led to a programme of inspections of police custody facilities by HMIP and HMIC. Improvements have also been made to the custody environment and to the kind of people who work there, which all have the potential to provide a more humane experience for suspect in the police station, through civilianization and privatization, as well as through technology such as CCTV.

However, various aspects of policing have remained unchanged including the existence of considerable amounts of police discretion which, in combination with the inherent permissibility of the law (McBarnet, 1979), enables the occupational cultures of the police to exert significant influence over police decision-making and actions. What has also remained unchanged is the role that the police occupy in society. In relatively consensual and peaceful democratic societies, this role concerns the exercise of authority backed up by the capacity (i.e. the possibility) of using force. That is, the police have at their disposal discretion about the deployment of legitimate force to control 'something-that-ought-not-to-be-happening-and-about-which-someone-had-better-do-something-now!' (Bittner, 1974).

These ‘new’ and the ‘old’ aspects of policing co-exist alongside and conflict with each other. Moreover, the clash between the new and the old has been intensified as a result of social, political and economic changes in the post-war period, which have left the police in a precarious position, as evidenced by declining trust in the police and as the police have struggled to adapt to the changing world around them.

Together this is what is meant by plus ça change and it is all manifest in police custody, a micro-cosm of policing. This was the main focus of my talk, evidenced with reference to the data that I collected in my ESRC-funded police custody study in 2006/7. In sum, custody environments are much improved, but they are still concerned with asserting power and control, as well as with the deprivation of liberty, meaning that suspects are still at risk from what I have called the ‘pains of police detention’ and are likely to experience police custody as like a ‘miniature prison’. Suspects generally have better access to rights and entitlements (such as to legal advice), but the conditions of police detention and the pressure put on them by the police and others can still lead them to waive these rights so as to ‘get it over with’ as quickly as possible. Suspects form positive relationships particularly with civilian police staff, but these can be undermined by the largely coercive relationships that they continue to have with police officers, backed up by their capacity to use force.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Job Opportunities on my 'good' police custody study

Very briefly, here is some information about the research positions that will be available on my new police custody study from February 2014.
I am looking to appoint two researchers on this ESRC-funded study, the aim of which is to conceptualize and theorize ‘good’ police custody practices. In brief, successful applicants will work as part of team collecting quantitative and qualitative data in police stations across England and Wales, analysing and writing up the data in a timely fashion, as well having opportunities to attend conferences overseas. For further details please click on the links below:

The closing date for applications for both posts is 10 October 2013.

Monday, 17 June 2013

I am back!

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last year, but I have been rather occupied with all things baby. My well-intentioned plans to continue updating the blog whilst on maternity leave fell by the way side. Babies keep you very busy! However, I am now back at work - teaching, writing and researching - and it feels good.

Whilst on maternity leave I did manage a small amount of writing, well, finishing off of publications, which was great for keeping the brain ticking over. These are below, though only the first is published at the moment. This article on the role of the law in policing appears in a collection of articles by key policing scholars about theories of policing. This collection is a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in policing, given that theories of policing tend to be a neglected but essential topic in police studies. Happy reading.

Skinns, L. (2012) ‘The role of the law in policing’, Journal of Police Studies, 2012/4, no. 25.

 Skinns, L. (forthcoming in 2013) ‘The police in England: an institution in crisis?’, in M. Smith et al. (eds.) UK Institutions, crisis and response. Palgrave Macmillan.

Du Rose, N. and Skinns, L. (forthcoming in 2013) Challenging the punitive turn in criminal justice through restorative approaches in schools? In E. Sellman, H. Cremin and G. McCluskey (eds.) When Restorative Justice and Education meet. London: Routledge.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

New research for 2013

I am very pleased and delighted to announce that I am the recipient of a major research grant from the Economic and Social Research Council, one of the key funders of social science research in the UK.

The title of the research is 'Good' police custody: theorizing the 'is' and the 'ought'. It will commence in September 2013, taking in multiple sites in the UK over a three-year period.

Police custody is where an arrested person is taken whilst a decision is reached about what should be done with the case, for example whether to charge or bail them. It is therefore an important gateway to the criminal justice process, where much is at stake for suspects and staff. In recent years, there have been changes to the way that police custody areas are staffed and managed, in particular, civilianization of roles formerly done by police officers has given way to privatization through the use of public-finance initiatives (i.e. when a private security company owns and/or manages a police custody suite and the police let it from them).

Though there have been a few recent studies of police custody, including my own book, ‘Police Custody’ (Willan, 2011), there have been few attempts to rigorously examine ‘good’ police custody or to map out changes to police custody arrangements on a national basis. Information about how police custody is currently delivered can be used to theorize about 'good' police custody practices and 'good' policing, and explore how police custody should be delivered in the future.

Aims of the research

1. Describe and appraise variations in police custody arrangements across the UK.

2. Identify the key dimensions of police custody areas in operation. They might include occupational culture(s), power, fairness, justice, emotions and relationships, cost, governance and accountability.

3. Explore how police custody arrangements such as civilianisation and privatisation impact on these key dimensions of police custody.

4. Conceptualise and theorise the dimensions of 'good' police custody and the links between them, and examine the implications for 'good' policing.

5. Develop benchmarks and a survey tool to monitor and improve police custody facilities, complementing the inspections conducted by HMIP/HMIC.

Though the study will be of great interest to academics and researchers, it will also be of interest to key stakeholders such as the 52 police organisations in the UK, HMIC, HMIP, the IPCC, as well as private security companies contracted to manage/staff police custody areas. These key stakeholders will be provided with a better understanding of:

- How police custody operates in practice and also how it should operate. Much research in the past has focused on police malpractice, whereas the proposed research will examine what constitutes 'good' police custody practices. Such information could be used to enhance public confidence in the police and to increase the likelihood that the public continue to cooperate and engaged with the police in the future.

- Police custody in a local and national perspective. This will enable police organisations to compare themselves with other similar police organisations and help them to understand where they might improve or where they are already good enough.

- How to monitor and improve police custody practices on an ongoing and long-term basis. The research will lead to benchmarks and a survey tool which police organisations can use to measure their performance and which will be complementary to HMIC/HMIP inspections.

- How to balance the need for cost-effective public service delivery with the need for security, fairness, justice, legitimacy and accountability, under austere financial conditions.