A 25-year old man from the South West Slopes region of New South Wales has died after being arrested over suspicions of drug driving.
The case has raised concerns about whether police officers are adequately trained when it comes to dealing with those who are in vulnerable, and even life-threatening, situations.
The man was arrested at about 6.40pm on Friday, 30 September 2022 in the small town of Stockingbal after registering a positive drug test, before being conveyed to Cootamundra Police Station.
Police have not released details of their initial encounter with the man, which would normally include their observations regarding his behaviour and their perception of his level of intoxication.
However, they have said that at the station, they called paramedics due to “concerns for his health and wellbeing”.
According to police, the man was later taken to Cootamundra Hospital where he was “unable to be revived”.
The incident begs the question: should officers have taken the man to hospital rather than the custody area of the police station?
Other questions include, how long was he at the station? How long did it take for police to call an ambulance? What did police observe regarding his level of intoxication and behaviour? What, if anything, did he say to police?
An internal police investigation has been commenced into the incident. There is no legal obligation for police to release the findings of that investigation.
Coronial inquest will occur – in due course
In New South Wales, however, all deaths in custody or during police operations are also subject to a Coronial Inquest.
Although these will rely heavily on police reports and will not normally commence for many months after the death, or even longer.
The purpose of a Coronial Inquest is to determine not only the cause of death, but also shortcomings in processes and procedures with a view to making recommendations for improvement.
But the process can be painstakingly slow and, again, will rely heavily on what is provided to them through the internal police investigation.
Duty of care
Police have a duty of care when it comes to dealing with those who are in their custody, and there have long been calls for officers to err on the side of safety when it comes to dealing with those who are heavily inebriated – by taking them to the hospital rather than the police station and/or requesting professional medical assistance to assess situations where an arrested person’s health may be at risk.
A case in point is the death of 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day.
Ms Day was asleep on a train from Bendigo bound for Melbourne on 5 December 2017, when a V/Line conductor woke her up and asked for her ticket. Disorientated, as she’d been drinking that day, the mother couldn’t find it.
So, the ticket inspector called the police. Officers then arrested her for public drunkenness at Castlemaine station and took her to the local police station, where they put her in a watchhouse cell to “sober up” at around 3.50 pm.
Whilst in the cell, Ms Day fell and hit her head at least four times during the initial two hours she was held in custody. CCTV footage shows that at 4.50 pm she fell and hit her forehead with “significant impact”. And the officers on duty neglected to conduct 30 minute checks of the cell, as per protocol.
The police realised Ms Day’s condition had deteriorated at 8.03 pm and she was ultimately taken to hospital in an ambulance.
A scan revealed that she’d suffered a brain haemorrhage. Ms Day never regained consciousness and died in St Vincent’s hospital.
Deaths in custody
According to figures compiled by the Australian Institute of Criminology, in 2020–21 there were 82 deaths in custody. 66 of these were prisoners in custody. 16 people died in police custody or custody-related operations. Fifteen deaths occurred while police were detaining or attempting to detain the individual – 6 of these were police shootings.
One of the greatest criticisms of police in recent years has been the ‘normalised use’ of weaponry, particularly ‘non-lethal’ weaponry and physically aggressive tactics during arrest, such as the use of excessive force, or groups of police officers dealing with a single member of the public.
At the same time as a young man dying in custody after a failed random breath test puts NSW police and police practices in the spotlight, a number of Queensland police officers are also being investigated after shooting a man at popular tourism destination, Airlie Beach.
Shot dead by Queensland police officers
The man allegedly approached police with a knife, he was shot by officers who then rendered first aid. The man was transferred to the local hospital but died a short time later. This incident is currently being investigated by Ethical Standards Command on behalf of the State Coroner, and is subject to oversight by the state’s police watchdog, the Crime and Corruption Commission.
Across Australia, while the standards vary slightly across the states and territories, police officers are trained to use lethal weapons as a measure of last resort, and most officers are unarmed with ‘non-lethal’ weapons such as tasers and capsicum spray so they do not have to use a gun.
Generally, according to police training manuals, the ‘golden rule’ for using a lethal weapon is that police must believe that there is a real and imminent threat and shooting a member of the public is a reasonable response to that threat, to protect themselves or others in the vicinity.
Of course, we all know that police officers are required to make split-second decisions, but there are concerns across the nation that the threshold for proof that lethal weapons are justified in particular situations is getting lower and lower.
It is often the case that after the investigations are complete, recommendations are made regarding how similar situations could be handled differently in order to reduce the likelihood of losing a life.
Whether police will act on those recommendations is, however, another matter entirely.
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