In January this year, I was delighted to officially join the Border Criminologies team as my research developed in new directions through working on a project to understand how migration is policed in the UK. My previous work has considered policing and race and the criminalization of British Asian men. Migratory histories, ethnic identities, notions of belonging, and processes of exclusion and racism have thus always been part of my work and this project allows me to see how these issues are recast in the contemporary climate of mass migration. The University of Oxford John Fell Fund award enables me to work with Mary Bosworth on how mass mobility has influenced ordinary policing practices and how this impacts the relationship between the immigration service and the police in the UK.
The project is well under way and I’ve been spending time each week in police custody suites and on the beat with officers. Through hours of ethnographic observation and interviews with police custody sergeants, police officers, and custody detention officers, I’m seeing how people who have been arrested are treated in police custody and the additional processes, agencies, and procedures involved when the suspect is from (or thought to be from) a foreign national background. When a person is being booked into police custody, they are asked their nationality and it’s often, though not always, at this point that detailed checks are carried out about their immigration status. The person’s right to remain is checked and their removability is ascertained (with the command control unit and immigration compliance and enforcement teams). Interpreters are called if necessary, fingerprints are taken and checked against the Home Office database, and details of any previous contact with the Home Office are established. Photographs and samples of DNA (from a mouth swab or hair) can also be taken and stored on the police database. The police can hold a person for up to 24 hours before they have to be charged with a crime or released.On a recent night shift in custody, I sat behind the booking in desk alongside custody detention officers and talked with the custody sergeant about the procedures followed and the various issues to be considered when a person is brought in. The night was quiet for the first two hours and then things started to become busy. Suspects were brought in for drunkenness, causing criminal damage, domestic violence, and assault. Some were cautioned and freed, others were charged and released on bail. Amidst this, four people were brought in having been found in the back of a lorry by motorway police. Immigration officers couldn’t come out to the custody suite given the late hour and so the police were advised by immigration and through the use of interpreters, both over the phone. Alongside establishing which country the people had travelled from, the age of one person had to be established in order for the police to decide whether he was an adult or a minor. The four people were traumatised, scared, weak, and didn’t know what to expect. The nurse checked them over and custody detention officers organised warm clothes, hot drinks, and food. They were held in custody overnight. Later on the same night, a man was brought in for causing criminal damage to his partner’s car. He was a Romanian national and had spent the last three years in the UK. He’d been arrested and charged in the UK previously for similar offences, and searches on the Police National Computer and the European Request Information Capture (ERIC) found that he’d been involved in other crimes in Romania.
The cases of the migrants in the lorry and the criminal damage are so different, yet both are the focus of our policing migration project. As the custody sergeant told me:
foreign nationality is one extra part of the procedure. It’s not that we have a different process for foreign nationals, it’s just that we might see different things…and we have to look out for those things. The vulnerabilities are manifold and vary greatly, but it all comes under the label of foreign national.
As you’d imagine, police custody suites are usually dark, tight spaces and can vary vastly in terms of how many cells are in a suite and how many people can be held at any one time. When I arrive at a suite I can usually see how many people are being held by looking at the board and also by glancing down the cell corridors, noting the pairs of shoes placed outside the cells.As the research progresses, I’m seeing how the complexities of police play out on a day-to-day basis and the competing factors that police officers and detention officers deal with. No two shifts in custody are the same and the widening of police-work is ever clear. Some suites have embedded health professionals within, so that medical issues can be evaluated and dealt with immediately, without the need for suspects to be taken to hospital. The custody sergeant is often considering and weighing up a range of factors when making a decision to charge, release, or apply for more time to keep someone in custody. Ranging from ascertaining the individual physical, mental, and social needs of a person brought in, ensuring adherence to human rights principles for both officers and suspects, to acting as a sounding board for police officers on how to proceed with complex cases, the custody sergeant is thinking about a number of issues at the same time and the 24 hour police custody is always ticking. One of the things I’ve noticed is that the decision to detain someone isn’t made lightly and the needs of those who are brought in to police custody are incredibly challenging. For example, those brought in can be suspects as well as victims, and it’s often painstaking for officers to understand how events unfolded. Suspects have to deal with the shock of being in police custody, and worries and concerns are magnified for those who don’t speak English and have less understanding of their rights in the UK. Some fear that they will be deported because of their crime, whilst others feel as though they have nothing to lose and are resentful towards the police and the state.
Alongside the police custody observations, I’ve been working with the criminal records office (ACRO) to understand how they operate with the police to obtain and provide information about foreign national suspects’ offending histories from the EU and non-EU countries. For example, the ‘Ask ERIC’ app is increasingly used by police forces to access criminal conviction information for people within the EU. Over the next few weeks I will spend time with each of the hubs at ACRO to understand how previous conviction histories are requested when a person is arrested and the various agreements being set up to make this process of information exchange smoother.
Following the observations at ACRO, the next phase of the research will involve shadowing case workers at the immigration service to understand how information is used and processed at their end. For example, how is information about new and previous convictions used to progress the case for someone who has an insecure immigration status? How are systems of information amongst the police and immigration brought work together on a case? And how are decisions to remove someone based on criminal convictions made?
The multiple angles of this research project make it challenging to understand how the different parts connect to each other and I hope that this will become clearer in time. In the meantime, I see how this research brings together old and new strands of my work: the policing of minority ethnic groups and their migratory histories have always formed a lens of analysis for me, as has the blurred distinctions between victims and offenders when unpacking the relationship between race and criminal justice. Seeing who is brought into police custody and the reasons for arrest has also revealed the sharp reality of new forms of racism towards migrants that are often beneath the surface of everyday order and daily interactions.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Parmar, A. (2016) Locked In. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/06/locked (Accessed [date]).