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.