Covid-19: ICV scheme now using ‘virtual visits’ to check on detainees' welfare

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A Police Commissioner-led scheme in which volunteers make unannounced visits to custody suites to ensure detainees are being properly looked after, is running ‘virtual visits’ in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.

In order to adhere to social distancing rules, Merseyside’s Independent Custody Visiting (ICV) scheme is making use of modern technology to talk to people held in police cells.

Merseyside’s ICV scheme was established in 1984 following the recommendation of Lord Scarman in 1981 in the wake of the Brixton Riots and is run and overseen by the region’s Police Commissioner, Jane Kennedy. It currently has 21 volunteer members who, prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus epidemic, were making random, unannounced visits to custody suites across Merseyside to observe, comment and report to the Police Commissioner on the conditions under which people are being detained.

Jane said: “Independent Custody Visitors perform an important public duty checking on the welfare and well-being of detainees. Running this scheme is one of the ways Police Commissioners hold the police to account.

“The stringent public health regulations currently in place clearly make it difficult for our volunteers to visit police stations to check on detainees’ welfare in person, so we have worked with Merseyside Police to devise an alternative way to continue to deliver this public assurance.”

On April 14th, ICV scheme chair Reverend Peter Beaman embarked on his first ‘virtual visit’. From his home on the Wirral, he was able to call the custody suite, speak to officers in charge to find out about the levels of occupancy and any issues, before talking to two detainees being held at Wirral custody suite. Since then, Rev Beaman has carried out four further virtual visits, speaking to at least three detainees each week. It is hoped that further volunteers will be able to join the remote meetings in the weeks to come.

Rev. Beaman said: “These virtual visits to custody suites allow me to speak to staff and detainees to check that they continue to be treated appropriately and they have access to required facilities. Whilst not as comprehensive as our physical visits, they allow us to continue to monitor custody suites whilst complying with government requirements on social distancing and travel.”

Given the current crisis, the ICVs are particularly checking if detainees are being provided with adequate soap and washing facilities. Checks are also being made on the reasons for any delay in bringing someone arrested to a police station, and on whether adequate reviews are being conducted once they are there.

The PCC also continues to run the Appropriate Adult scheme which ensures vulnerable adults have all the support and guidance they need during the custody process.  This ensures that in cases where a detained adult has a mental health condition, learning disability or autism and does not have a parent, carer or friend to be with them then an appropriate adult (AA) can be called upon to secure the person’s rights whilst they are interviewed by police investigators.

AAs are completely independent from the police and they attend to safeguard that individual’s interests and welfare and ensure their rights are protected.

Jane added: “I am grateful to Merseyside Police’s Head of Custody, Chief Inspector Rufus Binks and the ICVs themselves for their inventiveness and flexibility at this time.

“It is really important that everyone stays at home where possible, but Covid-19 has not prevented my office from continuing its vital work. I have been having regular remote discussions with the Chief Constable and other senior representatives of Merseyside Police, my commissioning team has been ensuring support services for victims of crime continue to be available and accessible through the Victim Care Merseyside programme and our ICVs and Appropriate Adults continue to perform their vital checks, in new and varied ways.”