By Clare Holland (Highly Specialist SLT, Criminal Justice Liaison and Diversion)

“But he can speak?!”: if I had a pound for every time a police or detention officer said these exact words to me I’d have… well about £12- but you get the gist. Being a Speech and Language Therapist in a police custody suite is still a very surprising discovery to most, even within our profession.

The ‘why’ part is easy- the police custodial setting is one of the most challenging communication environments that any person can experience. You’re required to process complex questions with potentially unfamiliar vocabulary and rapid topic changes, while remembering and articulating an experience in sequence, against a milieu of heightened emotions. Now add the prospect of the detained person (DP) having speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), which will represent a significant barrier to understanding and engaging fully with the procedures they are subject to. It’s a very real prospect, as people with SLCN are disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system across both youth and adult age groups.

Now for the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Police Custody is, quite frankly, chaos- if I’m trying to assess someone prior to their police interview, I am lucky to be afforded half an hour with them; and even luckier to get 5 minutes to hand over advice to legal reps, appropriate adults and interviewing officers (as I don’t directly support the suspect). Fast-paced, targeted testing (or as I like to call it, a ‘quick and dirty’ assessment) is usually the only option. I take a ‘top-down’ approach to assessment: What do I want to know and what is the quickest, simplest way to capture and communicate this? Typically this is what I administer:

  • Sentence repetition (8 items) – A quick look at auditory memory to allow comment on how able the DP is to take in the information presented orally within the interview.
  • Legal vocabulary- Does the DP understand the meaning of common vocabulary s/he is likely to encounter in interview? e.g. allege, intent, grievous, indecent or admission.
  • CELF-5 Following Spoken Directions- I always like to do this one. It’s a cruder measure of sentence comprehension (compared to say the TROG), but consider the likely audience- a solicitor or police officer with no prior knowledge of SLCN (start talking about grammatical constructs or key word levels and you’ll see them glaze over within seconds). It allows functional and relatively straightforward advice to be given about the length and complexity of questions. I use it informally, by allowing for repetitions to be given- this is so I can comment on whether DP is likely to seek clarification and repetition independently from the interviewing officer- super important!
  • Emotional Vocabulary- one of the first things police officers often comment on is a seeming lack of emotional response to the impact of their criminal behaviour on the victim(s). A quick look at the range of words a person can generate to describe emotions in a given scenario allows for comment on the DPs ability to label/express appropriate emotional responsiveness.
  • Expressive Language- I don’t formally assess this given time constraints. My comments and advice are based on the narrative and spontaneous communication within assessment. What is gleaned is enough to say how capable the DP is to give full, detailed answers and accounts; and whether they have the requisite skills to elaborate, clarify or justify themselves verbally.

There is much, much more to CJLD SALT than this- often assessment takes place outside of the custody environment during the investigation period or is requested in preparation for a court hearing (which is a much more formal approach). This is hopefully an insight into how SLT tries to make an impact at those very first stages of police contact.

For me, the bottom line is that flexibility and confidence in your assessment approaches (and a tolerance for chaos) is the key to success as a CJLD SLT. Communicating useful, easy to implement advice against a ticking clock means forfeiting the quest for perfection and that really is ok!