Investigating the decision-making approach to risk assessment in police custody

When a person is booked into police custody in England and Wales they are assessed for risk of harm to themselves or to others. This risk assessment informs the decision as to what observation level they are placed on, ranging from hourly visits to constant observation for the highest risk detainees. In comparison to the international standard for risk management, there are gaps in the risk assessment process in police custody. Currently, the analysis and evaluation of identified risk is down to the experience and judgement of the Custody Officer, rather than a more structured method. This paper questions whether the process should be more formalized, using a statistical tool rather than relying on expert judgement. This paper uses a mixed methods approach investigating custody record data from three English police forces to identify key risk factors that lead to variances in observation levels, and interviewing sixteen Custody Officers from a further two forces investigating their perspective of the risk assessment process The findings suggest that whilst there are key factors affecting observation level, an entirely statistically based risk assessment process would lack the flexibility to account for the individual and would need to include additional information custody officers consider. It is concluded that further investigation should be conducted into a process which combines an actuarial approach with the intuitive insights gained from expert decision-making.