Since August 2014, NatCen’s Crime and Justice team have been carrying out qualitative research for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) to give voice to people in vulnerable circumstances who have been held in police custody. Enabling participation among people who are less easy to reach is at the core of the work carried out by our Crime and Justice team. Our studies help ensure that a diverse range of people have their views and experiences heard and taken into account by decision makers.
Our research for HMIC involved 28 interviews with children and young people (aged 17 or under), people experiencing mental health problems, and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. The perspectives of those who took part in our research have informed the findings and recommendations of HMIC’s thematic inspection on the welfare of vulnerable people in police custody, published in March 2015. Both the research and the inspection have a shared commitment to gathering evidence that can contribute to protecting vulnerable detainees by highlighting good practice as well as identifying areas for improvement. The HMIC inspection also makes recommendations for how this might be achieved. A reporting combining the findings of the HMIC thematic inspection and the NatCen research can be found here.
In planning this research, we gave careful consideration to enabling participation. Participants were informed of the research through reputable public and voluntary sector organisations acting as gatekeepers. Prospective participants were approached sensitively and recruitment materials were tailored to each of the research populations, highlighting the potential for this work to contribute to improvements in policing. The research team were flexible and responsive in arranging and conducting interviews, taking account of the needs and circumstances of individual participants.
While a diverse sample of people contributed to this research, we encountered a number of challenges. First, some gatekeepers found it understandably difficult to assist with this research due to pressure on their time and resource. Second, the relationship between gatekeepers and their service users (particularly young people) could be very fluid. This made it challenging for gatekeepers to approach some of their service users who in theory may have wanted to take part in an interview. Third, potential participants were not always able to keep their appointment. Reasons for missed or cancelled appointments included changes to their circumstances (such as housing problems, health deterioration or having re-offended) and individuals being unable to give informed consent on the day of the interview due to mental health problems.
Our research demonstrates the value of working through trusted gatekeeper organisations as a means of recruiting research participants who may be otherwise hard to reach. It illuminates the complexity and changeability of the needs and circumstances of people who come into contact with the police. It also sheds light on the significant time and resource pressures faced by some organisations who offer advice, guidance and support to people in vulnerable circumstances. Given this context, our work points to the benefit of ensuring that studies that seek to engage people in vulnerable circumstances are planned appropriately and adequate time is available to build strong relationships with gatekeepers and participants. These measures will help ensure the voices of vulnerable people are heard.