A volunteer custody visitor has spoken of how the violent Brixton riots of 1981 changed her outlook on life. Mandy Walker, of Montgomeryshire, volunteers for Dyfed-Powys Police as an independent custody visitor – a vital role that emerged post 1981. Speaking at an event organised to celebrate the work of volunteers with the force, Mrs Walker explained what had motivated her to give up her time to ensure custody units are up to standard and detainees’ rights are being upheld.
“It was 1981 and I was a 24-year-old carefree Welsh girl,” she said. “I moved to London and I was having the time of my life. “I didn’t take much notice of what was going on in the rest of the world. As for politics and social issues, that was someone else’s problem, not mine. “That all changed when something happened just four miles from where I lived.” Mrs Walker explained that as a keen hockey player, she would regularly drive from her flat, through Brixton to get to her club. And it was in Brixton that events unfolded which would change her outlook on life. “It was the sort of place you hoped you wouldn’t break down, or you wouldn’t have to wait for long at the traffic lights in case your tyres were stolen,” she said.
“Operation Swamp was set up in an attempt to cut street crime in Brixton, and within five days 943 people were stopped and searched, and 82 arrested. “This raised tensions between predominantly black locals and white officers.” Mrs Walker could never have imagined how the situation would escalate over the next few days, with the Brixton riots breaking out, leaving members of the public and police officers injured, and hundreds in custody. “Missiles were being thrown at police, petrol bombs were being thrown, setting fire to everything,” she said. “There was smoke coming into my flat, and the sound of sirens was constant, day and night. “Over the weekend, over 50 members of the public and over 400 police officers were injured. The damage to property was in the region of £7.5 million. Perhaps the biggest problem of all was the arrest of 282 people, most of whom were bystanders.” “Custody units in and around Brixton were overflowing, and police officers were overwhelmed. Alex Wheatman, an author who was arrested during the riots, wrote that detainees’ pleas for help were ignored. It must have been a fearful time for police, but it was fearful for those detainees as well.”
Following the riots, the Scarman Report was commissioned by the UK Government and an enquiry was held into the incident. A recommendation in the report was the establishment of independent custody visitors, who carry unannounced visits to custody suites. After seeing the events unfold and the impact on the community, Mrs Walker decided to volunteer her time as a custody visitor. She now travels around the Dyfed-Powys Police area dropping in on custody units to carry out unannounced spot-checks. “We have to be admitted immediately unless there is a dangerous situation occurring,” she said. “We ask detainees if they have been informed of their rights under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and if they are being treated properly. “We also check if all areas are in good condition, that the food is in date, that equipment is adequate, and that there is adequate reading or religious materials available. “If any detainees raise any issues, we raise these immediately with the custody sergeant.”
Speaking of the Brixton riots, she said: “It has changed the lives of detainees, and it has changed me. I have come full circle and am contributing to society through my voluntary work. I am very grateful for the opportunity to do that.”