You are on the Natcen site

Click here for Scotcen

natcen map

You are on the Natcen site

Click here for Scotcen

natcen map

New study uncovers views of vulnerable people in police custody

10 March 2015 | Tags: crime, wellbeing

A new study published today reveals the views and experiences of people in vulnerable circumstances held in police custody.

A new study published today reveals the views and experiences of people in vulnerable circumstances held in police custody.

Qualitative research carried out by NatCen Social Research spoke to children and young people aged 17 and under, people experiencing mental health problems and people from black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities. It looked at each stage of the custody process, from arrest through to transfer or release.

NatCen carried out this work to inform a thematic inspection on the welfare of vulnerable people carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).

Some of the key issues raised by children and adults who took part in this research were:

Access to mental health and other services

  • Children and adults experiencing mental health problems welcomed alternatives to custody where appropriate.

‘...because I've actually gone into the [police] station, been arrested, taken into custody, it always ends up with me being sectioned and on a secure unit rather than me volunteering myself and going to an open unit, and having more sort of responsibility for myself.’ (Participant experiencing a mental health problem)

  • Some children and adults felt mental illness and/or substance misuse had contributed to their arrest. They said that earlier or more effective intervention from other services could have helped them avoid being taken into police custody.
  • Access to healthcare and other professionals who can identify and respond to the individual needs of detainees was seen as important in breaking the custody cycle.

Responding to vulnerability

  • Children and vulnerable adults appreciated when the police provided reading materials and talked to them in the cell to help pass the time and alleviate anxiety and distress.

‘[The custody officer/staff member] asked if I was alright. I have to say actually, the custody officers are really quite pleasant… They just seemed quite conversational and I think actually on this occasion, more than once, I called and said, 'Look, this is ridiculous, when am I gonna be seen?', and they weren't at all impatient with me. They weren't rude to me.’ (Participant experiencing a mental health problem)

  • Some children described having limited awareness of what they were entitled to in custody and did not always understand the technical language used by the police.

“[The police] was like, ‘You’re bailed on affray.’ And I didn’t have a clue what affray is. I was like, ‘Eh? What?’… I was like, ‘Okay, whatever.’ I just wanted to get out.” (Child detained aged 15)

  • Participants said police practice would be strengthened by the police having greater awareness of different vulnerabilities, access to accurate and complete information on detainees’ needs, and adequate staff resource to protect the safety and welfare of detainees.

Fairness and respect

  • Being held in custody was described as more bearable when detainees, including children and those experiencing mental health problems, were treated with fairness and respect.
  • Others described negative treatment, including a perception that some members of the police treat detainees who are from black communities less favourably because of their ethnicity.
  • Unfair treatment based on the appearance or social status of detainees was also raised as an issue.

Caroline Turley, Head of Crime and Justice, NatCen Social Research said: “This research highlights some of the ways in which the police protect the welfare and safety of vulnerable people in their care, and importantly, presents participants’ suggestions to help improve the quality and consistency of care at each stage of the custody process.”


For further details contact Leigh Marshall: 0207 549 8506 or 0782 803 1850.


Notes to editors:

The full report can be found here.

NatCen Social Research is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.