Police struggle with drugged detainees
Sat, 30 Jun 2012 11:50a.m.
By Dan Satherley
A review of deaths in police custody between 2000 and 2010 has highlighted difficulties the force has with detainees who are heavily intoxicated or on drugs, illegal and prescription.
The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) looked at 27 deaths between 2000 and 2010, to identify "recurring issues or developing trends", says chair Judge Sir David Carruthers.
It found that although police practises improved over the decade, there are still some issues that need to be resolved.
"While it is rare in New Zealand for people to die while in police custody, such deaths can be controversial," said Judge Carruthers.
"There may be issues around the use of force by police during an arrest, or with the standard of care police provide to a detainee… While not all deaths in custody are foreseeable or preventable, in some cases the actions or omissions of police staff may be a contributing factor."
He said the review was not to "attribute blame", but to learn "useful lessons".
The review covered deaths that occurred in police custody, or during an arrest, but excluded deaths resulting from a police pursuit or a police shooting.
Of the 27 detainees whose deaths were covered, 13 were under the influence of alcohol at the time of their arrest, and nine were on drugs. Five of the deaths involved people who were only in custody for the purposes of detoxification.
In all five deaths that involved people detained for detoxing, police were unable to carry out a risk assessment because the detainee was too drunk to answer the questions.
The IPCA noted that because police regularly deal with drunk people, they risked becoming "desensitised" to the risk it poses.
Three of the deaths came as a direct result of drug use, and in all cases, the detainee had used methadone earlier that day. One was also suspected to be on BZP, in addition to methadone, and another had combined it with alcohol and the prescription sleeping pill Zopiclone.
Seven deaths followed the use of restraint by police. Of these, three died due to heart disease, the exhaustion of resisting arrest leading directly to their deaths. Another died after being restrained in a neck hold due to weakened carotid arteries in their neck, a fact unknown to the officer at the time of the arrest.
Three of the seven died as a result of positional asphyxia, caused by handcuffing a suspect behind their back while lying face down. Police have since been advised to avoid "posterior handcuffing" where possible, and not use it on obese people, who are at greater risk of asphyxiation.
Another seven deaths were caused by a detainee's medical condition. The IPCA found in two cases, police could not have done anything to prevent the deaths because there were no indications the detainees' health was at risk.
Three deaths could have been avoided if police had recognised the risks and sought medical attention in a timely manner, however. In one case, police relied on an ambulance officer's assessment that a detainee with a brain tumour didn't need to go to hospital, but his heavily intoxicated state clouded the seriousness of his condition.
In another, a man with a head injury was left unattended in a cell where he fell and sustained further injuries instead of being taken to hospital.
The most common cause of death was suicide by hanging, of which there were 10.
Just yesterday Coronor Richard McElrea recommended that future prisons not be built with exposed piping, following the suicide of an inmate at Christchurch Men's Prison.
In four suicide cases, police had failed to confiscate "dangerous" items from the detainee.
Fourteen of those who died had mental health issues, and 15 had been assessed as being not at risk. Eight didn't even undergo a formal risk evaluation.
The youngest that died was 19, the oldest, 68.
All but one were male, and 13 were Maori. The IPCA said the "disproportionate" number of Maori who died in custody "reflects the over-representation of Maori in the criminal justice system generally", and was not within the scope of the review.
Though the small number of cases means the figures aren't statistically significant, the IPCA said they still show there are recurring issues which police need to look at.
To this end, the authority has made 20 recommendations, including:
the establishment of detoxification centres or temporary shelters;
The review, including the full list of the IPCA's recommendations, can be downloaded here.
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5/07/2012 11:02:08 a.m.
Maybe if the Marijuana is legalized none of the pressure would take place and no waste of the taxpayers money, but waisting the taxpayers money on drug test for the unemployment is a waste of time and money, some of them will dry out just to passed the drug test then straight back to pot, its the standard procudures for all drug users regardless if you are working in parliament or in the cop station.. Drug test all the staffs each month in this country then you will find the truth to the drug users..
1/07/2012 12:40:41 a.m.
It's so much more easier to blame someone else instead of taking personnal responsibility!
30/06/2012 5:50:28 p.m.
To be honest, Who cares, its not like these people were pillars of society. They were scum and this country is probably a better place without these criminals.
30/06/2012 4:09:37 p.m.
So a person dies in custody while out of their tree on alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both. I don't see any extra problems. The punishment is self-inflicted. Why should the death be the police department's problem? Don't get pissed, don't take drugs, and don't get arrested. All three are a simple matter of taking personal responsibility.
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