Monday, 22 August 2016

Five hours of alleged neglect in a Maitland Police cell and a woman lay dead

Maitland Police Station. Image: The Sydney Morning Herald

There is absolutely no excuse for any intoxicated person dying whilst in police custody.

The mother of four, a Wiradjuri woman, was placed in a cell alone at about 1am and checked on at 6am. [The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 August 2016]

If true, the reported five hour gap between security checks by a detention officer should be called for what it is – neglect of the safety and physical wellbeing of a vulnerable person.

Aboriginal Legal Service, excerpt from media release, 17 August 2016:

NSW legislation may need to be reviewed

Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT (ALS) is concerned about the care of intoxicated persons in police holding cells following the tragic death of an Aboriginal woman in police cell custody on 19 July 2016.

Rebecca Maher, 36, died in police cell custody in Maitland Police Station following her detainment by police for apparent intoxification.

Although earlier reports suggested Rebecca Maher was arrested, police media reports state Rebecca Maher was detained for intoxification.

A police media statement says Ms Maher had ‘appeared intoxicated’ and was placed in a holding cell, and ‘about 6am the woman was found deceased.’

Gary Oliver, CEO of ALS says the legislation relating to the detention of intoxicated persons may need review.

“We understand Rebecca Maher had been held in a holding cell for some hours before she was found to be deceased.

“We have many questions about what happened that night, and that includes what continuing avenues the police took to find a responsible person as guided by the legislation, and during that time, what level of care was provided to Rebecca Maher during those 5-6 hours while held by police.

“Putting an intoxicated person into a cell places enormous responsibility on the police to carefully manage the health and welfare of that person until which time they do not appear to be intoxicated and can be released.

“Police notification using the ALS Custody Notification Service (CNS) applies if police have arrested a person for an alleged offence.

“Police are currently not required to call the CNS when they have detained someone who appears to be intoxicated for the sole purpose of their own welfare.

“Police however are required to do a number of other things, including giving the person an opportunity to contact a responsible person, or continually seeking to put the person into the care of a responsible person willing to undertake the care of the intoxicated person, such as a family member, a friend, a member of staff of a government or non-government organisation, or a facility providing welfare or alcohol or other drug rehabilitation services.

“If a responsible person cannot be found, or if the person is not willing to go into the care of the responsible person, or if it is impracticable to transport the person to a responsible person or to their home, police may hold the person at the Station as a temporary measure until that person is seen not to be intoxicated.

“Under the legislation, if the intoxicated person is kept at the station, they have to be kept in a separate part of the station, they are not to be detained in a cell unless it is necessary or impracticable to lock up the person elsewhere, and they have to be given food, drink, bedding and blankets, appropriate to their needs.

“The person must be released as soon as they stop being intoxicated, or appear to not be seriously affected.

“If an intoxicated person is held but not charged, under existing legislation, there is no requirement to call the CNS.

“This may well be a law reform issue. A vulnerable person in custody needs protection.

“A notification system such as the CNS can help trigger protective processes, such as health and welfare checks.

“However, the legislation already requires police to enact certain pathways to ensure the care of the intoxicated person.

“Did police enact those pathways?

“Does the legislation relating to the detention and notification of intoxicated persons need to be reviewed?

“These are some of our questions.

“It is the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody this year, and so many recommendations have still not been implemented, yet they remain astutely relevant.

“The lessons for the care of Aboriginal people in custody are already written. Let’s use them.”

 NSW Police Force, media release, 19 July 2016:

Critical incident - Maitland

A critical incident has been launched after a woman died while in custody at Maitland Police Station.
About 12.45am (Tuesday 19 July 2016), police located and detained a 36-year-old woman who appeared intoxicated, walking along Wollumbi Road, Cessnock.
The woman was transported by police to Maitland Police Station and placed in a holding cell.
About 6am the woman was found deceased.
A Critical Incident Team from Newcastle will now investigate all circumstances surrounding the incident.
That investigation will be subject to independent review.
All information will be provided to the Coroner who will determine the cause of death and make any findings about the events leading to the woman’s death.
The welfare of the police officers has been addressed and they are being supported.
The woman's family has been notified and our thoughts and condolences go out to the family.

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