24 Hours in Police Custody: a gripping and pretty nuanced look at how policing works

For this programme, Channel 4’s team used 60 remote-controlled cameras and five roving crews to film what really goes on inside a police station.

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24 Hours in Police Custody
Channel 4

You can see why the chief constable of Bedfordshire Police, Colette Paul, said it was a “high-risk strategy” to allow a Channel 4 documentary team inside Luton Police Station (29 September, 9pm). OK, so she and her high-ranking colleagues have almost nothing to lose when it comes to the underlying reputation of the police (Jimmy Savile, Rotherham, Hillsborough, Plebgate . . . the list of failures goes on and on). But even on best behaviour, British coppers tend not to make for a particularly appetising sight, political correctness not yet being entirely in their grasp.

Add to this the fact that Channel 4’s team used 60 remote-controlled cameras and five roving crews to gather their material, and what you have is a recipe for verbal gaffery, showing off and goofing around. I bet Paul lay awake at night worrying that the public would soon be treated to the sight of a bunch of paunchy, middle-aged white men making mother-in-law jokes by the tea urn.

As it happens, in the first film, an officer did refer to a “bit of skirt”. In context, however, it seemed to me only to underline his human side: he and his colleagues were trying to work out – there was real wonderment in their voices – how a man could be driven to murder by his passion for a member of the opposite sex. (The film followed the suspects in the attempted contract killing in 2013 of Atif Ali, with whose fiancée one of the those involved wanted to have a relationship.)

This is a great series: gripping, deeply interesting but also pretty nuanced. Chief among its achievements is the revelatory glimpse it gives us of police officers at work, men and women whose qualities as portrayed here have nothing to do with bullying, and very little to do with pluck. The shouty oi-you’re-nicked clichés so beloved of crime writers are wholly absent. These coppers are quiet, careful, mostly office-bound, stoic in the face of extreme provocation and, above all, spectacularly dogged in the matter of pretty boring evidence (I’m talking about phone records).

“You’re fighting for your life here, aren’t you?” said Martin Hart, a detective, to a suspect whose story seemed not to stack up. That line could have come straight out of The Bill. But he offered it in much the same tone as you might ask someone if they fancy a sandwich.

Each film follows a suspect and those looking after them at the station – solicitors, custody officers, detectives – from the moment of their arrest until the point, 24 hours later, when they must either be charged or released (a short update at the end tells you the outcome of the trial, if it happened). The structure allows the viewer to feast on detail. Some of this is quotidian – the first suspect, Mahboob Baig, having been dragged from his bed at 6.30am, was asked if he’d like regular or Crunchy Nut cornflakes for his breakfast – and some of it is complicatedly procedural. But all of it is weirdly fascinating. And it comes with bathos, too, the serious shading into the ridiculous in about as long as it takes to say Scott & Bailey. “Who wants to squeeze the cock of justice?” joked one relieved detective, wielding a rubber chicken in the moments after their suspect was charged.

The access is astonishing. Baig agreed to the screening of all the footage of his arrest and interrogation even though, following his trial earlier this year, he was acquitted. I can’t think why, but I’m so grateful that he did. Thanks to this, some of the audience will have had cause to remember that what looks like guilt – the clenched jaw, the twitching knee, the changing story – can just as easily be a sign of fear or confusion; and that, in any case, such behaviour counts for very little in a court of law.

Perhaps he simply recognised that the police have a job to do, and that it is a very difficult one. One ordinary day, he found himself at the centre of a high drama; it could very easily have ruined his life and yet, in the moment, it was strangely unhistrionic. There were jokes, there was small talk, there were Crunchy Nut cornflakes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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