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
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Extras
indybest
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
Sport
Lionel Messi looks on at the end of the final
football
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Your picture is everything in the shallow world of online dating
i100
News
The Swiss Re tower or 'Gherkin' was at one time the UK’s most expensive office when German bank IVG and private equity firm Evans Randall bought it
news
Life and Style
Attractive women on the Internet: not a myth
techOkCupid boasts about Facebook-style experiments on users
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on