‘Good’ police custody: Theorising the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’

Research Institution / Organisation

University of Sheffield

Principal Researcher

Dr Layla Skinns

Level of Research

Professional / Work-based

Project Start Date

August 2013

Research Context

​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 the Principal Investigator's 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. Therefore the aims of the research are to:

  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.

Research Methodology

​The research will be undertaken by a team of researchers over three years:

Phase 1 (Sept 2013-Feb 2014): There will be a survey of all 52 police services in the UK, asking them about the composition of their main police custody facilities in terms of police/civilian input, throughput, and management. This information will be used to describe and appraise types of police custody suites and to select four sites for Phase 2.

Phase 2 (Mar 2014-Dec 2014): In each of these four police custody suites, one month of participant observation will be followed by 52 interviews with staff and the collection of data from official records about suspect experiences and outcomes. In each site, a random sample of 20 suspects will be interviewed about their experiences of police custody. With their consent, they will also be followed up in Phase 3.

Phase 3 (Jan 2015-Feb 2016): Based on the data collected in Phase 2, a survey tool will be designed to test developing theories about the key dimensions of police custody and the impact of police custody arrangements on them. This will be administered to staff and suspects in 1-2 of the busiest police stations in 20 police services in the UK. Suspects identified in Phase 2 will be followed up through a combination of face-to-face interviews and an examination of police records.

Phase 4 (March 2016-August 2016): The purpose of Phase 4 is to examine the implications of all the data for conceptualising 'good' police custody. This will lead to a set of benchmarks and survey tool for police organisations to measure their performance. A key impact of the study will be ongoing assessment and reform of police custody to complement HMIP/HMIC inspections.

Interim reports and publications

​For regular updates and newletters, please refer to the project website.

Skinns, L. Rice, L., Sprawson, A. and Wooff, A.  (under review) Police legitimacy in context: An exploration of ‘soft power’ in police custody in England. 

Skinns, L., Sprawson, A. and Wooff, A. (under review) Police custody delivery in the twenty-first century in England and Wales: Current arrangements and their implications for patterns of policing.

Skinns, L., Wooff, A. and Sprawson, A. (2015) ‘Preliminary findings on police custody delivery in the 21st century: Is it “good” enough?’ Policing and Society.

Skinns, L., Wooff, A. and Sprawson, A. (2016) The ethics of conducting research on the police: dilemmas and new directions. In D. Martin and S. Tong (eds.) Researching Policing: taking lessons from practice. London: Routledge.

Wooff, A. and Skinns, L. (2017) 'The role of emotion, space and place in police custody in England: Towards a geography of police custody', Punishment and Society. DOI: 10.1177/1462474517722176

Date due for completion

August 2019
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