This is the official blog of ex-Sgt Ellie Bloggs. I was a real live police constable then sergeant for twelve years, on the real live front line of England. I'm now a real live non-police person. All the facts I recount are true, and are not secrets. If they don't want me blogging about it, they shouldn't do it. PS If you don't pay tax, you don't (or didn't) pay my salary.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Death in Custody

FACT: a death can be treated as "in custody" indefinitely after any period of detention by police, if the death is related to the time in custody. It used to be twenty-four hours, but the police can now be investigated for killing someone they arrested a year ago, if the two events are shown to be related.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We all do things at work that we regret - and sometimes they come back and bite us, like the Doc we don't realise the consequences until they become actual facts instead of just concepts.
I get covered by my colleagues if I make a mistake, what we do is another job that is a team game. We are very fortunate that a mistake is not wrongdoing.
And it's improtant for us to remember that the person who never made a mistake never made anything.
And that's the problem - you don't make progress if you don't take risks and you will always make mistakes if you take risks.

14 April, 2009 22:29

Blogger Virtual Supply said...

Good post.

quote "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."


14 April, 2009 22:48

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pieces like this give me, as a MOP, some cause for hope. Intelligently, thoughtfully and grammatically well written, they counterbalance my experience of moronic thugs wearing state sponsored uniforms. I wish there were more like you, Gadget et al.. Why aren't there? And why aren't you "in charge"?


14 April, 2009 22:52

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bloody Hell PC Bloggs; Blandmore Custody sounds like a complete nightmare. And I bet you haven't even been properly introduced to most of the prisoners before they start all that nonsence!

15 April, 2009 00:19

Anonymous Anonymous said...

very good post.

15 April, 2009 06:55

Blogger thespecialone said...

And dont forget that officers have to pulled off the street if a drunk person comes in. Despite the fact that they got themselves in their situation, they still need to be babysitted (on a constant).

I can see it now in the future...drunk man/woman was NOT arrested by police and died of swallowing vomit at home. Family says 'If the police had arrested him, they could have looked after him. I blame them for his death'.

15 April, 2009 08:16

Anonymous Dr Melvin T Gray said...

Foreseeable mistakes are often reasonably avoidable. The latter will rightfully encounter challenges in the course of scrutiny and passage through the Courts, Ellie. Such 'mistakes' may be deemed criminal acts at the outset when a burden is transferred to the defendant to demonstrate reasonableness.

Recent change in social mood embodies a widespread reluctance to accept decisions made by a state Institution as automatically right. (Watch panic mount in IPCC and expect the resignation of its Chairman later this year).

One of your best articles this year, the most potent part of which advocates thought before action.

15 April, 2009 08:58

Blogger Nationalist said...

The combination of fragile health and a violent disposition are a problem I don't envy any officer having to deal with.

But if someone dies as a result of an unprovoked ASP strike from behind then it's difficult to sympathise with the suspended officer.

15 April, 2009 12:21

Blogger The TEFL Tradesman said...

We all applaud "thought before action", Dr Mel, but when you have a screaming hysterical woman in front of you and a baying crowd behind, the psychological response of "flight or fight" automatically takes hold. And what PC would run?

Sometimes the levels of provocation, inimidation and general stress reach hitherto unknown levels, and the mind and body automatically respond in a way that would not be considered "normal" by anybody at anytime.

Having been a teacher in one of London's least prestigious schools, I can sympathise with the policeman and understand what he was experiencing at the time.

Personally, I would have pulled down the noisy lady's knickers and given her six of the best. With a week's detention to 'boot'!

15 April, 2009 12:25

Anonymous Dr Melvin T Gray said...

To be honest, TEFL Tradesman, I agree with you (in all but the stripping). I might have gone as far as to protest "Steady on" when the officer was suspended, were it not for his premeditated action to remove identification, which tipped the scales.

15 April, 2009 13:03

Anonymous Retired Sgt said...

Back to the topic-Custody is one of those situations in the police where you know that you will get 0% backing from any of the guvnors whether you do it right or wrong.Friday night you are left to get on with it as all the 9/5ers have cleared off.You try to raise a problem or ask for help the first response is You are a Sgt you should be sorting this out...only until Supts are forced to do some time in custody at a weekend will things change...

15 April, 2009 15:58

Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ 3 minutes 30 seconds

15 April, 2009 17:41

Blogger PC Bloggs said...

The press have made a big deal out of the sergeant removing his epaulettes before "assaulting" this woman. As if, as Dr Mel suggests above, this denotes premeditation. The fact is our uniforms are woefully inadequate and in my area we are only allowed one set of hi-vis epaulettes, even though we have two different hi-vis coats. If you've accidentally left the set on your big coat when you go into battle in your thin one, you don't have any to put on. So I doubt the lack of epaulettes denotes anything other than this sergeant's force's attitude towards expenditure.

15 April, 2009 18:01

Blogger Dark Side said...

Excellent, well thought out post Ellie..x

15 April, 2009 18:30

Anonymous MarkUK said...

"We tread a perilous path where wrongdoing means the same thing as mistake"

This happens all over the place. Think medics, nurses, paramedics and even car drivers.

TEFL Tradesman is wrong in his apprehension of the issue at the G20. A witness, a press cameraman, said (on PM on Radio 4) that the sergeant appeared upset because the woman was taking photos. That led to the smack across the face. To me, that's not acceptable.

She naturally remonstrated with the sergeant. For her pains, she got whacked with an ASP.

Police officers, except under special circumstances, can be photographed just the same as the public. These circumstances were not special enough.

Imagine you'd just been smacked in the mouth. Wouldn't you have plenty to say to your assailant? To use an offensive weapon (as it would be if I carried one) on someone much smaller than yourself is not only cowardice but IMHO unlawful.

This was a "highly trained" TSG officer. His behaviour must bring the training into question.

15 April, 2009 21:16

Anonymous R/T said...

Looks to me like the TSG skipper had embroidered epaulettes on which didn't show up on the photo. Mind you, where are we now that the lack or otherwise of shoulder numbers is all the media is talking about? Like any of us care about you lot anyway, really.

15 April, 2009 22:19

Blogger Virtual Supply said...

Seems your being used by Chinese to promote pornographic web sites. The pages translate badly and seem to be a list of keywords, poosibly to fool search engines.

Translated partly reads... "Explodes the crisp a piece free to look that the heaven private clothing forum, the sentiment color movie downloads, adult short film, Li's on-line sentiment color small..."

It could be needlessly adding to your bandwidth consumption Ellie.


15 April, 2009 23:16

Anonymous Mac said...

Spot on post Ellie.

I'm going home now (I'm posting this in my own time - I was off duty at 0200). Down in the cells there's: one 15 yr old female chronic alcoholic who's blind drunk again. (She'll be dead before she's 20 either through the drink or what might happen to her when she's drunk). She came in too drunk to be processed. A drink driver banging his head off the walls, Another regular with depression, history of self harm, drug abuse etc. and who claims (and looks like) not to have eaten for 4 days but is refusing food when offered. Our cell block holds 27 and at any one time when more than half full there will usually be 2 open door cell watches, taking 2 officers per shift off the streets to babysit. There are another 20 prisoners in at the moment and just about all of them have had to see the FME for some ailment or other. I have just done PACE reviews on them all and just like after every PACE duty I go home now praying none of them die before I'm back tonight.
The irony is that as a commenter says above, most of them're safer here than if they were at home alone in their own beds with no one monitoring them!

16 April, 2009 02:55

Anonymous Anonymous said...

PC Bloggs, nice post. I enjoy all of yours though, so this was no different.
I work in an adult psychiatric locked unit in Southern California. 100% of the patients on oour unit have underlying health as well as illegal drug issues along with their mental illness.
In my 8 years here, I have known 6 coworkers to be permanently injured by patients striking out and dozens more put out on temporary injuries due to the same.
When medications don't work, talking fails and all other interventions have been wasted, the combative patient is then restrained to the bed by a 5 point system.
Easily 90% of these cases then begin to complain of chest pains, shortness of breath - anything to get them out of restraints (and back to beating staff).
Our new Director of Nursing has decided that we are to begin removing patients from restraints within 15 minutes of the incident, because - 'We don't want them to injure themselves."
Never mind the injuries to staff that ensue - we are obviously expected to take the hit. Also, anyone complaining of chest pains or shortness of breath, regardless of their condition - is to be immediately removed from restraints and transported to the ED. Where they then can either assault more staff or attempt to escape.
I can't speak to a death in custody, as I have never been in that position myself, although my heart goes out to those officers that have.
What I see coming in the future is giving that alcoholic a drink or that heroin user a needle to help them pass the time in the cell.

16 April, 2009 11:59

Anonymous Pete said...

I have a question. I was arrested, locked in a cell for 21 hours (and denied my daily medication, despite having it with me when I was arrested) and two days later I blacked out 5 times. It transpired that I had a serious cardiac problem, exacerbated by the stress of being locked up for so long. Obviously I survived, and now have an internal defibrillator, but if I HAD died as a result, would the officer who decided against calling the FME (despite me requesting to see them) have been investigated?

16 April, 2009 16:36

Anonymous Mac said...

Yes. Athough due to the two days elapsed it wouldn't automatically happen but would need a complaint (whether you died or not). Within 24 days it would happen automatically. A crucial aspect would be the 'causal link' due to time elapsed - the point being that if you were back on your medication for 2 days could a connection be made? I couldn't comment on your case but in our custody block anyone who asks for a doctor gets it and anyone with prescribed medication in their property get the doctor as well. Add to that the ones the Custody Sergeant just isn't happy with and like I said above, for all the reasons Ellie eloquently describes, probably 80% of our prisoners see the doctor. It's not the ones that might die through mistreatment that frighten me because that ought to be under our control. It's the 'walking time bombs' who could drop down anywhere that are scary. The irony is that if we just kick them out as being too risky, then there's 24 hours unmonitored we are still responsible for!!!!

16 April, 2009 20:26

Anonymous Mac said...

Sorry - I meant 24 hours, not days

16 April, 2009 20:27

Blogger James said...

Being "Due one" is a horrible feeling. We had 3 die on us in 4 years, none for past 3 years, now it feels like a waiting game!

17 April, 2009 20:11

Blogger Unsworth said...

Nicely done - and informative comments here too.

I am a severe critic of policing and, sometimes, of police officers. However I'm also prepared to look at the other side of the coin - and criticism does not imply unconditional condemnation. In this case I think that your descriptions of liabilities do help people to understand the problems of the police when dealing with the loony public.

Well done.

19 April, 2009 08:39

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The anonymous contributor asking why there are not more like Ellie and why they are not 'in charge'rather misses the point. Most of us are like the author but care too much about the police service and the decent people we are supposed to protect, to want to go to work every day in a hot air factory. Don't ever forget that I live in the society that I police, as do my family and friends. The culture of fear, be it personal culpability for mistakes made, or a police force out of control, or terrorism, or whatever today's bogeyman is, is simply a means of controlling a restless population who know that things are somehow wrong.

Over 5,000 police officers from all over the UK worked G20 and less than 200 complaints were made, many of which will be unfounded. Not so bad in the grand scheme?

22 April, 2009 10:30

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a friend who joined the met in the 70's. Thye had an old tramp die on them in cells during the night. They smuggled his body out the back and placed him under large bush in the park. Nobody wanted to do the paperwork. My how times have changed.

22 April, 2009 16:22

Anonymous Louise said...

"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."

'The face of violence'? Ian Tomlinson was walking away with his hands in his pockets when he was struck down by police. There was no face, violent or otherwise, to draw a baton to! This meandering metaphor is nothing more than sophism and lends credence to the notion that the police are either a) violent, armed thugs or b) willing to cover up for violent armed thugs, as long as they're in the same uniform.

26 April, 2009 21:11

Blogger PC Bloggs said...

Louise, there is no meandering metaphor. My post is about deaths in police custody and what it is like to experience that from the side of a police officer. How you relate it to Tomlinson is up to you.

26 April, 2009 21:51

Anonymous mark said...

O yes your so worried about deaths Christopher Alder will be so pleased, O he cant hes dead.
and wile he died so called police offices took the piss out of him,
i bet they still cry themselves to sleep every night.
pull the other one its got handcuffs on.

20 May, 2009 20:33

Anonymous Anonymous said...

We had one of these in Smalltown recently. A regular User/drunk was arrested d and I and died in the van. Nobody could have know but of course its a major incident now warrenting heavy investigation. In essance the mans lifestyle killed him, he just happened to be arrested when it occurred

07 June, 2009 19:50


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