Police staff 'failed to properly care' for woman who died in custody

 

Sharon McLaughlin died alone in a police cell. She was 32, covered in vomit and almost certainly suffering from heroin withdrawal after spending nearly 24 hours in custody for allegedly shoplifting to feed her habit. 

Her death from a ‘cardiac event’ in Worthing Custody Centre in May 2010, may not have been preventable, but police officers and privately contracted custody staff failed to properly care for her, according to an inquest and an independent investigation. No-one called a doctor, despite clear warning signs about her mental and physical health.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and the coroner identified a series of shortfalls including gaps in training and knowledge among all those involved in McLaughlin’s care. But the government is under fire because the IPCC still has no automatic power to interview or discipline privately contracted staff even if individual failures or misconduct contributed to a death or serious injury. It was what lawyers describe as a “lacuna of jurisdiction”.

Her untimely death occurred two years after Gary Reynolds’s suffered a catastrophic brain injury as a result of “cumulative failures” by the same police force and private security company. It casts serious doubt on promises made by both Sussex Police and Reliance Security to learn lessons from the Reynolds case which also raised questions about training and dealing with vulnerable detainees.

McLaughlin’s family last night called for action to ensure the growing army of private policing staff taking over an expanding range of front-line police duties are fully accountable. The issue has been officially raised by the coroner presiding over McLaughlin’s death with the Home Secretary.

Lincolnshire Police is the latest to turn to a security company, G4S, for traditional policing services in order to reduce costs as forces grapple with 20 per cent cuts. In June 2010, Cleveland Police signed a £175m deal with Steria to provide services such as call handling, control-room support and help preparing criminal cases.

Tom Brake, co-chair of the Liberal Democrat backbench Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities Committee, said: “We have a big push for police services to be contracted out to private companies. Hand in hand with this must be a drive for much greater transparency and accountability, so that these companies function within the same constraints as the public sector.”

Katherine Craig of Christian Khan solicitors said: “Various government bodies have benefited, inadvertently or intentionally, from the legal and jurisdictional ambiguities following the move to outsource public functions to private companies… This regulatory loophole means that not only are individual errors overlooked, but more importantly systemic failures are not identified and therefore mistakes leading up to Sharon’s death may be repeated.”

Sharon McLaughlin was born in Shoreham, West Sussex in 1977, the middle child of five.  Bright and fun-loving, she experimented with cannabis in her teens, became a mum at 17, but the wrong company led her to heroin and crack cocaine in her mid 20s. In the last few years her life deteriorated, suffering from depression and self-harm as the drugs took over.

Custody officers found used needles and drug paraphernalia during a strip search, yet there was no mention of her addiction in the initial risk assessment. The custody staff believed she was “low risk” because she didn’t complain so did not call a doctor or nurse.

The evidence shows McLaughlin was left in a vomit covered cell for at least six hours; withdrawal symptoms can start within six hours and can be serious enough to need hospital care. Someone in McLaughlin’s condition should “always be seen”, according to the medical expert at the inquest.

The CCTV, the responsibility of Reliance, in her cell failed to record - it was known to be broken for two weeks. The time codes on the cameras were inaccurate which made piecing events together difficult.

Several custody staff failed to follow government safety guidelines and the IPCC recommended retraining for Sussex Police. One custody sergeant was given a written warning; Reliance sacked one officer; he refused to be interviewed by the IPCC.

Sussex Police said it had addressed all the recommendations by the IPCC and coroner, and was considering whether to ‘designate’ Reliance staff, in order to make them accountable to the IPCC.

Reliance also said it has implemented the IPCC’s recommendations after both Reynolds and McLaughlin’s case. “There were errors made by individual custody assistants however none of these contributed to Ms McLaughlin's death. Reliance has introduced refresher training on welfare checks of detainees.”

McLaughlin’s brother, Graeme Lloyd, last said his family was “heartbroken by a clear failure to learn lessons". “It seems the police are contracting our duties to people who cannot be held responsible; this is an abdication of their responsibility... After this, I don’t know if I can tell my sons that they should go to the police if they’re in trouble.”

A Home Office spokesman said private staff working as detention and escort officers can already fall within the IPCC’s jurisdiction. “We are looking into whether their remit could be extended to cover private contractors carrying out a range of other policing duties.”

Deborah Coles of Inquest said there was no place for legal ambiguity. “There can be no legal discretion over whether private companies are held responsible for acts or omissions in the duty of care and human rights owed to detainees and an urgent review needed to address this loophole.”

News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Voices
Ukip leader Nigel Farage arrives at the Rochester by-election count
voicesIs it any wonder that Thornberry, Miliband, and Cameron have no idea about ordinary everyday life?
Sport
sportComment: Win or lose Hamilton represents the best of Britain
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsene Wenger reacts during Arsenal's 2-1 defeat to Swansea
footballMan United and Arsenal meet on Saturday with both clubs this time languishing outside the top four
News
i100BBC political editor Nick Robinson had a lot of explaining to do
News
A girl plays on a Sony 'PS Vita' portable games console
news
Life and Style
Nappies could have advice on them to encourage mothers and fathers to talk to their babies more often
newsTalking to babies can improve their language and vocabulary skills
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines