Death in Custody
A police surgeon once told me about a prisoner she tended to in custody who was having a heart attack. He had been brought in having struggled violently with the arresting officers, was covered in scratches and bruises, and was an alcoholic asthmatic diabetic epileptic. With a weak heart. He complained of chest pains all the way in - not surprising as he had been handcuffed tightly due to his struggling, and had probably taken a few knee strikes or baton blows to the chest to accomplish this. Aside from that, he was bellowing loudly enough to convince most of the custody suite that he was not in serious danger. Once he had been restrained in the cell to perform a "cell exit" technique (whereby the officers place someone in a position where they cannot leap up and attack the police before the door is closed), the man grew quiet. He was under constant supervision, and medical help was summoned immediately when his shortness of breath and chest pains were apparent.
Believe it or not, some days 90 or even 100% of prisoners arrested in Blandmore require a police doctor, or Forensic Medical Examiner (FME) to examine them for one or more condition. If they aren't alcoholics, they are drug addicts. "But drug addicts are ok," the FME told me. "Drug addicts might withdraw, but alcoholics can just die on you."
In custody, deprived from their usual diet of white lightning, detained alcoholics can literally just die. Many of them are diabetic as well, which doesn't help: without a meal or their insulin, diabetics can slip into a coma causing brain damage or death. Heroin addicts can become depressed or manic, banging their heads off the walls, biting at their wrists, or wrapping the elastic of their hoodie or tracksuit around their throats. Extreme claustrophobia is common among addicts of any kind - they feel out of control without access to their substance, and often need urgent medical care or prescriptions if they are to be kept in custody. On occasion, a prisoner's high blood pressure, lack of access to medication or serious alcoholism, can mean the doctor will designate them "not fit to detain". It is still the police's decision whether to detain someone or not, but I wouldn't want to be the custody sergeant who went against the doctor's advice.
FMEs have training in custody issues and are therefore specialist doctors. They have inputs on evidence-gathering and police procedure, and their job is to advise the police. It is rarely the doctor's neck on the line if a prisoner were to die.
Despite this recipe for disaster, Blandshire Constabulary hasn't had a death in custody for some time. Some people think we're about due. Which is cheerful. It is probably every PC's nightmare to hear that the prisoner they fought with earlier is now fighting for his life. The prospect of immediate suspension, clothing seizure, protracted investigation and press coverage aside, nobody wants to kiss their partner goodbye in the morning and find out that they've ended a life in the afternoon.
Even so, it's hard to really grasp the enormity of a death in custody unless you experience one. Especially for medical staff who save and lose lives on a daily basis.
The FME told me: "He had been given oxygen, ambulance called, the defibrillator was standing by. When he sat up and opened his eyes, and stabilised, I left him to the paramedics. I stepped out of the cell and saw the forensic teams standing by at the end of the corridor in white overalls, ready to cordon off the cell with police tape if he died. That was when I realised."
I have no idea whether Mr Tomlinson was wrongfully assaulted by a police officer, or whether his heart attack had anything to do with it if he was. I have no idea if he was an alcoholic, diabetic, epileptic, or any of the other frighteningly life-threatening conditions that people walk around with for years before keeling over one day.
I do know what the officers involved are experiencing. I'm glad I'm not one of them.
We tread a perilous path where wrongdoing means the same thing as mistake. You can't think about it when you draw your baton in the face of violence. But you must think about it before you strike. You must be absolutely in tune with your moral fibre, be utterly confident of your self-control, and be prepared to answer questions about both afterwards.
'Diary of an On-Call Girl' is available in some bookstores and online.