A Guide to Police Custody.

1.    Introduction
2.    Arrest and transport
3.    Being searched
4.    The custody desk
5.    The cell
6.    Interviews
7.    Overnight stays and remand
8.    Making complaints
9.    Witnessing an arrest

1. Introduction

Ooops – you’ve just been detained by the “boys in blue” for her majesty’s pleasure. Well, don’t panic; they haven’t convicted you yet, and here are a few tips for surviving the ordeal. You may be the most innocent person in the world but, right now, they have one aim: securing a conviction by gathering as much information from and about you as possible.

You need to keep one aim in mind too: being released without giving them any reason to keep you locked up, or the excuse to lock anyone else up. Here is a guide to dealing with being in police custody. By knowing what to expect, the whole process becomes a lot less scary and intimidating, making the experience easier to handle. You will be more able to make decisions which help your cause and not theirs.

Even if you don’t do anything illegal, it does not mean you will never be arrested. You never know what sort of attitude the police might take and attending a demonstration may be all that they need. But it is nothing to be scared of.

Of course, different situations require different behaviour, but we believe that there are some basic things to know about and remember.

2. Arrest and transport

Normally you are ‘held’ by several officers, maybe even handcuffed. It is best not to struggle unless you have a real chance of getting away. Evaluate your chances and how well you can leg it. If you are not up to it, don’t give them an opportunity to abuse you or charge you with resisting or assaulting an officer.

As they hold you and wait for transport, they will often try chatting to you. This may take a variety of forms, but its purpose is to get you into talking mode and soften you up to give out information. Stay silent. You are under no obligation to speak to them, so don’t. Even simple information such as where you came from or the colour of the vehicle you came in can be harmful, so don’t give it to them. It may not be obvious to you, but since you don’t see the full picture it is best not to provide the information they are after.

Often they will try the friendly approach first (it can be fun watching for all the clichés), but they sometimes end up drifting into sarcastic mode. However much they poke fun at you and your beliefs (and they can get very personal), do not respond or allow yourself to be goaded. Don’t give them the satisfaction – it is not as if they actually care about your beliefs. Explaining the law to them will rarely work, as for the most part police are not that bothered about what the law states; they prefer leaving that to the courts.

If arrested by yourself, the best thing to do is ignore them and stare into the distance or at the ground. If you are with other people, have a laugh and a joke if you want but don’t mention names, personal details or discuss what you’ve just been at.

Try to take note of what time you were arrested and numbers/descriptions of the various officers who took part in your arrest plus any other details you can remember. Keep an eye on other arrests, especially if police are heavy-handed. Watch out for police cameramen hiding behind vehicles, etc. This is a good reason for keeping your head down as much as possible, particularly when there are a large number of arrests, as they need photos for identification. There is no law saying that you have to pose for them at this stage in the proceedings. If they pull your hair to force your face up, scream as loud as possible – they are less likely to use a face full of pain as evidence. Likewise if they are violent in any way, feel free to scream; it will alert protestors, press and residents bringing unwelcome attention to the police.

In most cases do not give them your name. That can wait until you reach the police station. However, if you want people to be able to ask after you at the police station and get supplies into you, the best thing is to give your name out to surrounding protestors, including the people you came with (especially if you intend to use a false name at the station and do not want your cover blown if your friends ask after you).

For most occasions when animal rights activists encounter the police they are not likely to de-arrest you at the scene, so keep your mouth shut. If you are suspected of or caught committing a serious crime which you committed with others who were not caught, it is sensible to withhold your details from them for as long as you can (up to 12 hours or so). Once they know who you are, they can start looking at which networks you are part of and trying to work out whom else may have been involved. Staying anonymous for a few hours gives other people a chance to get away and work out alibis. You may be held longer but it is preferable in the long run.

At some point you should be cautioned for the ‘crime’. They may forget, so don’t remind them as this may work to your benefit. If you are confident in your legal knowledge it may be worth arguing the toss about the legality of your arrest. Don’t expect much though.
Once arrested you will be put in the back of a vehicle and taken to the station. Like everywhere else, do not say or discuss anything in the vehicle, including personal details – you don’t know who is listening in. At the station you may be kept waiting if it is a busy time. Nevertheless, you can ask for the doors to be opened so you can get some air, and you can also ask to go to the toilet – if they refuse then threaten to piss on the floor – it might encourage them to be nicer.

There may be cases where they hold you at the scene and promise to let you go if you give your details. They will threaten to arrest you if you don’t. This is a question of knowing the law, but for the most part, if you are not going to be arrested, it is up to you what you tell them.

3. Being Searched

If you are not arrested, but are being searched, the police have to give a reason why they are doing so and tell you what they are looking for. If they are letting you go afterwards, such as when they search people going to a demo, then they should provide a written record of the search, or the details of the police station where you can request a copy of the search (you can do this within 12 months). They also have to give their name and the police station where they are based. You do not have to give them any details about yourself, including name & address under any search power (see article on giving your details).

If you have been arrested, the police can search you. If you are being taken to a police station, you will normally not be searched other than a cursory attempt to pat you down for anything dangerous. Instead they will wait until you are at the police station.

Regulations surrounding being searched are:
a) Females can only be searched by a female officer; if otherwise happens, you have grounds for a complaint. Likewise, there are guidelines for searching people who are transsexual or transgender.
b) Only outer layers can be searched in public view; if they want to search anything else they must take you somewhere out of public view; this can include the back of a police van.

3. The custody desk


Once in the police station itself, you are lead to the custody desk. This is the centre of operations as far as you are concerned. It is where the custody sergeant resides – they are the police officer with responsibility for you while you are in the station. This also means that he is the person who makes the decision of when to release you.

Here, you will be processed. This involves asking you a lot of questions about yourself. You only have to give your name, address and date of birth. It is up to you to tell the truth or not (but see below under ‘Giving false details’). You can refuse to answer all other questions. Your date of birth is requested so they can distinguish between more than one person of the same name. The address is so they know where to find you. The rest is information gathering you are not obliged to help with.

In fact, you don’t even have to give them your name and address, and if they don’t charge you they still have to let you go. Be aware that this can also be used against you and you can be kept in longer on the grounds that they need to confirm your identification, especially if they are planning to charge you. It is entirely up to you, but think it through. If you do not give your details, you may be kept in overnight (or over the weekend if you are arrested on a Friday or late Thursday) so that they can take you to court in the morning and work out what to do with you.

It is worth playing the custody sergeant carefully. Be polite and co-operative to avoid irritating them, but don’t give into their demands to answer all their questions. The best thing to do is to state outright that you will give them your name, address and date of birth, but that you are not answering other questions as you are not obliged to. Stay calm, think about everything they ask you and don’t allow yourself to get distracted and accidentally answer something you don’t need to.

A tricky point here is when they take your height. It is not unusual for them to force you to stand against a stick on a wall in order them to do this. Stand awkwardly if you want, but try not to make it too obvious!

You will be asked to sign some forms and indicate that you have understood certain questions; for the most part there is nothing really gained or lost from doing this, unless you are refusing to give any details. Likewise, you will be asked questions about being on medication, self-harm & drugs. While it may seem like it’s not of their business, they may make assumptions that you are likely to self-harm, etc. if you do not answer them. If you are vegan or have other dietary or religious requirements, now is the time to point out things like allergies and food intolerances.

Author’s note: I always state in advance something along the lines of “Just to let you know, I will not be giving my personal details/will only be giving my name, address and DOB and will not answer further questions, but I am willing to answer the mental health questions as I am aware that you have a duty of care towards me and would like to put your mind at ease regarding my safety”. Makes me look a bit more co-operative and like I know what I’m talking about.

The police may try and talk to you again. Be polite or silent. They are still not your friends and as their own warning goes, they will take note of everything you do say and will use it as evidence. Even if they do not use it against you, they may use it against someone else.

Don’t give them any information about what you were doing or about yourself. Stick to this pattern and your time in custody will be easier, especially when it comes to handling the interview. Even “harmless” conversation topics like your favourite football team (may give away when you’re from) or your ethics (which could lead to them asking what demos you’ve been on) can give them information they want.

Similarly, if you’re chatting away and then suddenly clam up in the middle of a conversation, they know they’ve hit a sore spot or an element of truth and try to use it against you. If you are not able to fend off questions, shrug your shoulders and stay quiet.


They will remove all the property from your pockets, bags, etc. and search them. You have no choice here, though they may let you retain some items, including any books you have brought. Some of it may be taken away as evidence, but most is listed on a form and put in a plastic bag, then sealed with a tag. They should count out any money in front of you.

You will be asked to sign the form listing your property. Some people prefer not signing this, especially if there has been stuff found on them that they are not keen to be associated with. It is up to you; in most cases it is not an issue so you can sign. These days, everything is done on a computer. If you refuse to sign, they will make a note of the fact.


Finally, you should be told your rights and asked to sign to say that you have understood them. There are four basic rights you have while in custody and you should use them all.

You are entitled to a copy of a number of booklets regarding the Codes of Practice – also known as PACE (the Police And Criminal Evidence act). Every police station must have copies and by law provide it on request at any time. We recommend requesting it straight away. This indicates that you are relatively clued up so they are less likely to attempt pulling a fast one on you. It may help you fall sleep or provide a good opportunity to catch up on your rights.

II. Solicitor
Request one straight away, the moment you have been processed. This is one of your most important rights and should always be exercised. Even if you are experienced in the ways of police custody, it always helps to have someone acting on your behalf while you are locked up.

Unless you are very confident about handling yourself, do not use a duty solicitor. They will not do their best for you, and you cannot trust them not to let information slip to the police. Duty solicitors often know officers quite well and you never know a solicitor’s own opinions and beliefs if you don’t know them. You may end up being a hunt saboteur with a hunt-supporting solicitor! If your chosen solicitor is unable to come directly, you will be given the chance to talk to them on the phone first and they should be able to get someone they trust to come to the station.

Remember not to say anything incriminating to your solicitor while in the police station. Assume every room and phone is bugged. Once a solicitor knows the truth about what happens, they can’t lie to a court – this doesn’t mean they will grass you up if you tell them you did something, but they wouldn’t be able to help you give a different story if taken to court.

III. Right to have someone informed
You are entitled to have someone informed of your arrest at any point during your stay in custody. This is normally, but not necessarily, in the form of a phone call. This right is so you can notify someone that you have been arrested and you do not have to choose between calling a friend or calling a solicitor – you have both rights! More often than not, the police will make the call themselves, although you should also be allowed a short personal call.

Remember: This phone call is not private, even if the phone is in a room away from the police! You should always assume that they will be listening to it.

You may also want to consider whom you ring, depending on the circumstances of your arrest. Ringing someone who has just legged it from the area in which you were arrested or a campaign number may tip the police off and you could cause someone else’s arrest. The best thing, if in doubt, is to ring someone out of the area, preferably on a landline, or a prisoner support organisation.

If you stand a chance of being raided then ring someone you can trust to go to your address so the police do not cause damage or take things they shouldn’t. This is especially the case if you have animals. If you are involved in a serious action, have this arranged beforehand. You can only have your house raided if you’ve been nicked for an indictable offence.

IV. Pen & Paper
You have the right to writing materials. This is useful to keep yourself from getting too bored & demoralised. It is a good time to catch up on all those letters you’ve been planning to write or to make notes from PACE relevant to your situation. Again, all the warnings about being careful apply. Don’t put on names and addresses, and certainly don’t write your statement. Police don’t normally look at what you’ve been writing, but there is nothing to stop them from doing so. Sometimes the police will refuse to give them to you, but your solicitor should be able to argue this.

4. The cell

This is where you will spend most of your time while in custody. It is generally a small, very bare room containing a bench and thin mattress. Some have toilets. Each cell has a buzzer for calling the custody sergeant, or the person who has been given the duty of looking after the needs of prisoners. They may not immediately answer, but they should come round for you. If you are in the cell for a longer period of time, you should ask if you can go outside for a while – they will normally have a fenced-off area at the back of the station which you can go to and have a cigarette or walk around. It’s not very exciting, but helps to pass the time and give you some fresh air and maybe some sunlight!

The door will have a spyhole and a larger gap for passing stuff through. They may check up on you regularly, so try not to get your hopes up every time you hear noises outside. The only people you normally see are the police and your solicitor. It is possible that the custody sergeant may allow someone else to come and visit you, but this is extremely rare.

There is a requirement to feed you at mealtimes (one main meal and two light meals). However, if you have dietary requirements it is best to state them early on, and also let your solicitor know about them. Most stations will now have vegan food, whether because of animal rights activists or because of people with religious reasons for not eating animal products.

The worst part is boredom and not knowing what is happening. Plus, there is the disorientation of not knowing what time it is and how long you have been in custody for. There are a number of things you can do to keep yourself occupied and stop you from getting demoralised. Think of it as a space to catch up on stuff, never as them having won:

a) As mentioned above, request both PACE and writing materials, as are your rights.
b) Try and get some sleep: police stations will have blankets, and reading PACE is particularly good at inducing sleep.
c) Dance, exercise or do Tai Chi. Again these will help you sleep, and it is a good chance to catch up on that practice you’ve been meaning to do for ages.

There is no harm going over the events leading up to your arrest, especially to get them clear in your mind, sort out what you did wrong, and mentally plan a statement. However, don’t dwell on it too long or it will drive you up the wall. Pacing is a technique people use to kill time but watch out for it getting too repetitive and leading to a feeling of hopelessness. Thinking about time is a very bad move.

Another tip is to not pay any attention to any noises you hear going on outside the cells, such as footsteps and jangling keys. These will lead to false hopes. The majority of them are not going to be for you; the only time to start paying attention is when you hear the locks of the door moving. As they have to keep checking on you, some of the noises will simply be them looking through the spyhole at you.

After your first six hours in custody your continued detention has to be reviewed. They may release you after these six hours in cases which are not so serious. After this, the review will happen every eight or nine hours. Before charging, the review has to be done by an officer of at least the rank of inspector who is not directly involved in the investigation.

After charging it is the custody officer.

It is extremely rare to be put into a cell with other prisoners, but if you do find yourself in that situation, be careful about what you tell them. It is good to have company, but take care. Likewise, assume that the police cell is bugged.

5. Interviews

See the guide to “Interrogation” for more information. The main point to emphasise is: do a “No Comment” / silent interview. It is advisable to have a solicitor present and let them know beforehand that you do not intend to answer police questions.

In animal rights and environmental movements, it is expected that no-one talks. Interviews have one purpose: to gather information in order to convict you and your companions.

The only exceptions to no comments are:

a) when a group of you have agreed beforehand what you are all going to say, AND everything else has gone to plan; or
b) you have done an action by yourself and you can argue easily enough that you were not committing a crime. This has been known to get people freed without charge, but make sure you know what you are doing in advance.

Most convictions come from statements arising out of interviews; it is the easiest way to a successful prosecution for the police, so they will try and pressurise you. Having a solicitor present will help stop the more outrageous pressures, plus all interviews have to be taped and sealed by law, which stops them from tampering with them. You will be asked to sign the tapes at the end; if you have done a “No Comment” / silent interview, then there is generally no harm in this. You may need to give it some consideration if you have given false details.

Despite anything said about it harming your defence at trial and ‘special warnings’, there are good reasons for not commenting during interviews. These tapes rarely come to court. Reasons you can use in court to justify your refusal to answer are:

a) “under previous legal advice”;
b) you were not presented sufficient evidence so that you could evaluate the situation;
c) you were too tired and/or bruised to feel that you could do yourself justice in the interview.

These won’t necessarily work to convince a judge, but there’s usually no harm in trying.

It is up to you whether you state your name at the start or not. It is best not to speak to the police from the moment you enter the interview room. They may ask you to speak to confirm your presence in the room – again you do not have to. Listen to the questions they are asking you, even if you are not answering them. It often gives you a good idea of what sort of lines of inquiry they are going down.

You can stop an interview at any time to confer with your solicitor, should you feel the need; however the police may see this as a sign that they are getting to you. A simple technique to avoid being intimidated by the police in an interview room is to pick a point on the floor or wall, and simply stare at it for the entire proceedings. This will also help you not to give away information through body language.

6. Being charged

When they have finished interviewing you, you will normally be returned to your cell while a decision is made about what to do with you. If they are letting you go they can charge you, or release you on police bail in order to return to the police station at a later date, giving them more time to decide what to do. They have to charge you or let you go within 24 hours of arriving at the police station, unless a superintendent extends this period. It can only be extended if you are being held on suspicion of committing a “serious offence”.
If you are being charged & released you will be told the details of the charges, informed about bail conditions, and then processed. You are asked to sign to say you have been informed of the charges and the bail conditions imposed, and be given a copy.

You can refuse the bail conditions, but it is likely that they will keep you in overnight and bring you before the magistrates the next day, who will probably impose the same bail conditions anyway. Or they will tell you that the conditions apply regardless of whether you agree to them. Most people accept even draconian bail conditions and then apply to have them dropped at the court appearance.

They must return all property that they are not using in evidence against you. Make sure you don’t leave without it. Hopefully some friends will be waiting for you, or have made arrangements for you to be met by someone. Your solicitor may be willing to help you with this.

7. Overnight stays & remand

If they think you have been a very bad person who doesn’t deserve to go free, you have refused bail conditions, or they simply want to continue questioning you the next day, they might be able to keep you in overnight. Other reasons for refusing you bail is that they think you will re-offend while free, maybe break your bail conditions, or that you will not turn up at court to answer the charges. This could be because you are on bail for other offences or have previous convictions (or a history of skipping bail).

If they do then you have the right to be fed properly and to 8 hours uninterrupted sleep, though they will check up on you to ensure that you are still alive. You should be provided with blankets.

If the reason for keeping you in is not for further inquiries, you are normally taken to the nearest magistrate’s court first thing the next day. You may have to wait all day for your case to come before the magistrates – however, you still have right of access to your solicitor who, if they are on your side, will have been keeping a track of the situation. You really do not want an unknown duty solicitor representing you when your freedom is at stake. The magistrates will either decide to release you subject to bail conditions, giving you a date when to return to court, or have you sent to prison to await trial. In the vast majority of cases, it will be the first option. If you are remanded, you will be able to re-apply for bail at your next court appearance, 7 days later.

Once free, your solicitor should stay in contact with you regarding the case, help you with Legal Aid and any queries you have.

8. Making complaints

You may be able to sue the police if you believe you have been unlawfully arrested. We have other articles regarding this on the website.

9. Witnessing an Arrest.

If you are a witness to an arrest there are several things you can do. The police may be less heavy-handed if they know they are being observed.

Take as many details as you can, noting the behaviour and the lapel numbers of the police officers (these numbers are very important). Ask the police why they are arresting the person and what police station they are being taken to. Ask the person if they want to give their name but don’t push the issue. Whenever possible take as much video/camera evidence as possible, including faces of the police so they can be identified later in case of making a claim against them. Let friends of the arrested person know where they have been taken to and give them your details in case you are needed to act as a witness on their behalf.

Always be careful when using a camera to record what is happening – you may have the camera taken from you if the police believe there is evidence of a crime on it and you may get someone in more trouble.