Andrea Danks has the keys to one of the most contemporary lodgings in the West Midlands - but also has to deal with some of the most unruly guests.
She is one of 25 custody sergeants overseeing detainees around the clock at the force’s new custody facility in Oldbury which opened in March as part of a multi-million pound modernisation project. This week saw its ‘sister suite’ in Perry Barr open its cell doors to further expand the force’s custody capacity.
In Andrea’s three years as a Custody Sergeant she’s seen it all… quite literally at times with some suspects whiling away their detention time by stripping off and performing in front of cell CCTV!
The 60-bed facility is unlikely to rank highly on Trip Advisor but, as Andrea explains, it’s helping speed up the custody process and freeing officers up to patrol the streets.
Tell us about your role as a Custody Sergeant… sounds like you’re a police landlady!
Well I guess there are some similarities: I check-in our guests, show them to their ‘en-suite’ room, and provide refreshments. However, the en-suite element extends to a toilet in the corner of the room and the furnishings are sparse to say the least. We provide a mattress, a pillow and a blanket.
It’s a fantastically modern facility, one of the best in the country, but certainly not one I would advise people check in to!
As a Custody Sergeant I will deal with people answering bail, risk assess all the new arrivals, and look after the welfare of the detainees. That includes providing food and drink, medical attention, allowing them access to the shower room, facilitating religious requirements.
There is a cell buzzer detainees can press if they need anything.
Child detainees (under 18s) are kept separate from adults to ensure they are safe and a social worker is on site most days to help with those who might not have a parent able to attend.
How does it differ to the older custody blocks you’ve worked in?
The main difference is that it’s a purpose-built custody suite, not bolted onto the side of a police station.
Some of our old custody blocks are out-dated, inefficient and have limited space. The police cells in central Birmingham date back to Victorian times and in honesty haven’t changed too much in the last 100 years.
The force has recognised this needs to change and the new facilities - one here in Bromford Lane and another opening soon in Perry Barr - are a huge step forward.
We now have six booking in desks so can quickly process detainees, even if several come in at the same time, which means the arresting officers aren’t held up in a bottleneck and can quickly get back out on the streets.
Talk us through the facilities then Andrea…
The cells have cameras, anti-graffiti surfaces, reflective ceiling domes so we can see occupants at all times, plus low beds to prevent falls - an important consideration for many of the night-time detainees who arrive drunk. In fact, the whole building has been designed to prevent harm and keep people safe whilst in police custody.
There are also four accessible cells for disabled occupants and six windowed cells for high-risk detainees. They previously had to be monitored by officers sitting in the open doorway of their cell so again this improvement frees up officers for other duties.
The central hub has a control desk from where all areas of the suite can be monitored using cameras, intercoms and alarm panels on every wall.
The medical room, fingerprint room and intoximeter room all feature the latest equipment, plus there are 12 interview rooms with digital interview recording facilities. It all helps make the system quicker and more efficient.
And presumably it’s a more pleasant environment for you to work in?
Absolutely: the old blocks, at times, were a bit of an attack on the senses. In the smaller ones it didn’t take too many rowdy detainees, some banging on cells doors, rattling the metal cell drop-hatch, shouting or even singing, before it was a cacophony of noise. It was always a good idea to have some headache tablets on hand.
The noise was quite off putting when dealing with visitors and especially when booking in a non-English speaker via an interpreter on a phone.
It’s now much cleaner and smells a lot better…
We won’t ask you to expand on that Andrea! Some people have suggested the suite is too modern for detainees and that the conditions should be bleaker in order to deter offending?
You have to remember that people who arrive in the custody block have only been arrested - they have not been convicted of an offence. These are temporary holding facilities and it’s only right the block is safe, clean and fit for purpose - anything less and it can have a detrimental impact on detainees’ behaviour.
It’s modern and fitted with state-of-the-art equipment… but that doesn’t mean it’s luxurious! We provide shower rooms and refreshments but the meals wouldn’t be winning too many Masterchef awards!
One detainee who was here recently - and this is someone who’s served countless stints in prison - said he found the sheer scale of it quite intimidating.
What frame of mind are people in when they arrive - have you encountered any aggression?
Most PIC’s as we call them - Person in Custody - are pleasant enough, though understandably a bit grumpy at being caught. They accept the procedures they have to go through.
Night shifts are a little harder as more are drunk and can be quite difficult but by morning they have sobered up, or come down, and some are apologetic at their behaviour the previous night. We frequently come on shift to be confronted with naked men on CCTV camera’ not too pleasant when you’re eating breakfast!
Not too many are violent, fortunately, although I have been assaulted twice. The last time was completely out of the blue: I was chatting quite nicely to the man and he suddenly shoved past me out the cell then turned and punched me once, knocking me straight to the floor. It hurt… a lot! It just goes to show you have to be on your guard at all times.
Any incidents stick in your mind during your three years as a Custody Sergeant?
I remember once trying to impersonate a chicken! I was struggling to explain the food options to one detainee who spoke no English… charades was my last hope of trying to get across ‘chicken korma’.
And I was once left wondering if a detainee was a vampire when he insisted his date of birth was 1380; it later dawned on me that he was using the Afghan calendar rather than our Gregorian one!
You’ve mentioned people you encounter who clearly have drug and/or alcohol issues. Is there anything you can do to tackle that in custody?
The new custody block affords more opportunities to work with partner agencies - like substance abuse support or mental health - and signpost people to groups who can help.
We will do a basic assessment of everyone that comes into custody to understand why they have offended and pass appropriate cases onto the Offender Management case workers who can look at ways to reduce the likelihood of them re-offending.
**West Midlands Police’s Oldbury custody facility cost almost £15-million but, due to its more cost-effective staffing model, will save around £1.3-million a year compared to previous custody arrangements. It was three years in the making, from planning approval through to finished product.**
Pictured: Perry Barr custody entrance