Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre welcomes the conclusion today of the Inquest into the death of Mr Stephen Niit in the cells at Echuca Police Station on 22 December 2009. Coroner Heffey today handed down her findings.
Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre argued that the tragic death of Mr Niit may have been prevented had Echuca Police been better resourced.
Police members treated Mr Niit with respect and compassion when they made the ill-fated decision to leave the cell door open on a hot summer evening. Had the cells been equipped with adequate air conditioning this would not have been necessary and would not have availed Mr Niit of a hanging point.
The Centre submitted that “institutional failure to recognise the danger of placing an intoxicated person, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress and who had exhibited self-harming behaviour prior to arrest, into a cell with access to a hanging point and a ligature and then failing to monitor Mr Niit in line with standard operating procedures, culminated in Mr Niit’s death.
Police officers in our regional stations are placed in a difficult position when assessing their duty of care to intoxicated persons and those suffering from mental ill health. The centre recommended that:
- practical and meaningful mental health first aid training be given to police officers working in regional Victoria;
- that regional police have 24 hour phone or online access to forensic mental health nurses or doctors;
- that Victoria Police develop building standards for all cells and holding areas to remedy potential hazards;
- that there be an improved information exchange between regional police stations regarding custody management issues, especially in relation to critical incidents and near deaths in custody;
- that police be given improved “vulnerable persons in custody” training; and
- that all Victorian Police cells be audited to ensure prisoner safety.
Coroner Dr Jacinta Heffey effectively endorsed our submission’s recommendation about the need for better information exchange between regional police stations. Coroner Heffey noted:
“I recommend that Victoria Police institute an “alert” process to be widely broadcast and disseminated amongst members providing information about both deaths and “near-misses” in respect of persons in custody in police cells.”
Loddon Campaspe CLC thanks Clayton Utz and deaths-in-custody expert Charendev Singh for providing pro bono legal support throughout the inquest.