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A Guide to Police Custody for Political Activists

1. Introduction

Ooops - you've just been detained by the boys in blue for her majesty's pleasure. Well don't panic; they've not convicted you yet, and here is a few tips on surviving the ordeal.

You may be the most innocent person in the world, but right now in their eyes you are a nasty activist. They have one aim, securing a conviction by gathering as much information from and about you as possible. You need one aim in mind - being released without giving them cause 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 better able to make decisions which help your cause, not theirs.

Just because you don't do anything illegal does not mean you will never be arrested. You never know what sort of attitude the police might take, and the fact of attending a demonstration may be all that they need. Yes, they do go out and randomly arrest people. But it is nothing to be scared of, and if you play your cards right there might even be a tidy cheque in it. You would be surprised at how many vehicles have been purchased courtesy of oppressive police tactics. (See

This is a guide only; different situations may require different behaviour, but we believe we give the best advice for the majority of arrests that animal rights activists and other campaigners face.

2. Arrest and transport to the police station

Okay, you have been seized by the police and not been de-arrested. Bad luck. Normally you are 'held' by several officers, maybe even handcuffed. It is up to you whether you struggle or not. 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.

As they hold you, waiting for transport and the orders for which police station to take you to, they will try chatting to you. This will come in 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's fun watching for all the cliches), but they normally 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 - just 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 fussed on 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 but don»t mention names, personal details or discuss what you've just been at. It's fine to discuss the sickening nature of animal abuse and how much of a payout you are going to get when you sue for wrongful arrest.

Note what time you have been arrested at when possible, and numbers/descriptions of the various officers who did it. Also, note as many details as possible, keeping an eye on other arrests, especially where 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 is 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, 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 (as they might not know if you are going to give a false name instead, blowing your cover).

For most occasions when animal rights activists encounter the police they are not likely to let you go, so keep your mouth shut. If you are suspected of a major crime, giving your details may alert them to who your companions are and thus get them nicked as well.

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 and the police are not too zombified 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 will be kept waiting, especially if there have been a lot of arrests or 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 encourages them to be nicer.

There are cases where they hold you (see other factsheets), and they may promise to let you go if you give your details. They will threaten to arrest you if you don't give details. 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.

2.1 Being Searched

This is a non-trivial point and we refer you to the fact sheets on the law. However, if you are not arrested but being searched, they 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 entering a demo, then they have to provide a written record, or the details of the police station where you can request a copy of the search. 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, no matter how much they bluster.

This doesn't apply if you have been arrested, when they 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 (see below).

Regulations surrounding being searched are:
a) Females can only be searched by a female officer; if otherwise happens, you have grounds for a serious complaint.
b) Only outer layers can be searched in public view; if they want to probe deeper then they must take you to somewhere out of view; this can include the back of a police van.

2.2 Witnessing an Arrest

If you are a witness to an arrest there are several things you can do. The police may let the person go if they feel there are too many people around and to continue arresting may inflame the crowd. It may also stop the police assaulting the person if they know they are being observed.

If that is not the situation, then 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 and what police station the person is to be 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 suing for assault. Let friends of the arrested person know where they have been taken to and give them you details in case you are needed to act as a witness on their behalf.

3. The custody desk

Once in the police station itself, you are lead by yourself 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 their guest. This also means that he is the person who makes the decision to release you.

Here, you will be formally arrested and processed. The processing involves them asking you a lot of questions about you and your physical appearance. What you are required to give is a name and address. You do not have to give your date of birth. It is up to you to tell the truth or not (but see below under 'Giving false details'). All other questions you can refuse to answer - which you should do. The date of birth is requested so the can distinguish between people if there are two 'criminals' of the same name, so watch out for it popping up repeatedly during your stay in custody. 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 they will still have to let you go eventually if they don't charge you. Beware that this can also be used against you to keep you in longer on the grounds that they need to confirm your identification, especially if they are planning to charge you. This is up to you, but think it through.

It is worth playing the custody sergeant carefully. Be polite and co-operative, so avoiding them becoming irritated, but don't give into their demands to answer all their questions. They may try and bully or scare you into doing this; the best thing is to state outright that you are giving them your name and address, but that you are not answering other questions as you are not obliged to. They will bluster, but if you hold your ground there is nothing they can actually do other than write down descriptions they take themselves. Watch out for them asking questions in an odd order, which can trip you up.

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. They are not allowed to do this, but it may not be worth contesting too much if it is going to really upset the custody sergeant. And you can always stand badly, skewing their reading, eg by spreading legs or raising heels.

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 from refusing to do this. Likewise, you will be asked questions about being on medication, self-harm & drugs; again there is little harm in answering these. If you are vegan or such, now is the time to point out things like allergies and food intolerances (they are more likely to pay attention to medical requirements for food than ethical ones, but don't count on it).

As when you were first arrested, the police will try and drag you into conversation. Be polite or silent, but resist. They are still not your friends and you should take heed to their standard warning that everything you say will be noted and taken down - and as the warning goes, they will take note of everything straight out and will use it as evidence. Even if they do not use it against you, they may use it against someone else. The conversation, if played right, may serve to chill them out as well, and may cause them to mark you down as being mostly harmless (ego aside, this is good).

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. Should you find yourself dragged into a conversation, for example about football, (questions about your favourite team often get followed up with "Oh, you come from there then" in an effort to provoke such details about you), parents (a crude scare tactic) or ethics (which then becomes, "oh, where you at such and such a demo"), you need to be able to come back with an appropriate response.

If you suddenly clam up in the middle of a conversation they know they've hit a sore spot and use it against you, or that they've hit an element of truth. The best responses are ambiguous, such as "well you're the coppers - that up to you to find out", or turn it back on them by referring to a copper well known for taking a very keen interest in a particular campaign (eg, "You'll have to ask Inspector Pettit for such classified information") as often these keen policemen are well disliked by the rank and file police doing the leg work. If you are not able to fend off questions, shrug your shoulders and stay quiet.

If arrested while involved in a liberation or very serious action where a number of people have taken part, it is sensible to not give your details either when arrested or at the custody desk for at least 12 hours. Once they know who you are, police intelligence may be able to identify who your companions were. Delaying this allows your companions to get out of the area and alibis set up. Unfortunately for you, you will be denied pretty much all your rights, and will be held for considerably longer; but it is preferable in the long run.

Next they will remove all the property from your pockets, 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 itemized 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. An advantage to signing, is that before you fill in the signature at the bottom, you can sign your name directly under the list of items; though it might annoy the police, it stops them adding anything incriminating to the list afterwards when you are not there. Some police forces sensitive to dodgy police now provide stamps to go at the end of the list with a place for your signature. Remember to read the list and cross out anything they've wrongly inserted. If you refuse to sign, they will make a note of the fact.

Finally, you will be told of your rights and be 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 booklet called 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 will help you sleep, and it is a good opportunity to catch up on your rights.

II. Solicitor
See Section 5 below.

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. It is completely separate from any conversations you have on the telephone with your solicitors. You are allowed to make this notification by law, which you can take at any time while you are in custody, unless you have been arrested for a serious arrestable offence. Any more phone calls are at the discretion of the custody sergeant, though it is probably best to arrange it through your solicitor. As they will have confiscated your money by this stage, the call is at police expense.

This phone call is not private. The situation will depend on the police station, but you can pretty much assume that they will be listening to it. In many cases, the telephone you will be given to use will be on the custody desk itself. All warnings given so far still apply. It is worth trying to insist on having a private conversation under the respect for private correspondence section of the Human Rights Act, but it is best to assume that they are listening anyway.

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, or a campaign number will tip the police of to the fact that they are involved in someway and you could cause someone else's arrest. The best thing, if in doubt, is to ring some one 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 before hand. You can only have your house raided if you've been nicked for an "arrestable 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 caveats 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. There are ways of smuggling sensitive papers out of a police station. Sometimes the police will refuse to give them to you, but your solicitor should be able to argue your case to get them to you.

3.1 Giving false details ...

In the past, people have been known to get away giving false details, particularly if the name didn't turn up on the Police National Computer [PNC - a national database of convicted people]. Note, changing small details such as spelling will not work with the PNC once someone is on it. An issue with giving false details is remembering to be consistent; if the police become suspicious then they may demand proof of habitation at the address given.

One way used to get around this is was having a pre-arranged address, where if they did call around, the inhabitants confirmed it was the prisoner's home under the assumed name. Later the residents would say that the person moved on, or never lived there at all. However, they may be hit with liability for perverting the course of justice or wilful obstruction; and also a police search depending on what the person has been arrested for.

Given the quality of police evidence it is advised that you do not give false details as the consequences can be much more serious than the offense arrested for. The choice is up to you, but it is not a decision to be taken lightly.

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This article is for information purposes only; its aim is to let people to know their full rights under UK law. Nothing on these pages is absolute as the law is always changing; if in doubt contact a trusted solicitor for further advice. We do not encourage you to break the law.

Please feel free to copy and distribute these articles to fellow activists, but do not alter the text in any way. These articles are anti-copyright for non-commercial purposes. Please visit for the latest version of our articles and to learn about the freeBEAGLES Ethical Open Document License under which this document is distributed.

If you see any errors, or we have missed any changes to the legal situation please contact us as soon as possible, at, as wrong information can prove costly to people's freedom.

© Copyright freeB.E.A.G.L.E.S.; last updated: July 2002