Manslaughter charges laid against three police officers in New Plymouth court

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Police have filed charges of manslaughter against three officers over the death of a man in custody.

Hawera police station

Hawera police station Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

A 55-year-old man died while in custody at the Hāwera Police Station in the early hours of 1 June, 2019.

The charges filed today in New Plymouth District Court allege that the officers were grossly negligent in their duty of care to the victim and that this negligence was a causal factor in his death.

In a statement, police said the decision to file charges was made after a thorough investigation and consideration of legal advice from the New Plymouth Crown Solicitor and a Queen’s Counsel.

The officers have been stood down from their duties and an employment process will follow in due course, the statement said.

All three officers have been granted interim name suppression and remanded on bail to appear again on 26 June at the New Plymouth High Court.

A former police crisis negotiator, Lance Burdett, told Checkpoint that during the swearing-in process police agree to protect life and property and do it according to the police’s values.

Burdett, who is not privy to the details of the case, said mistakes were made from time to time, but this appeared to be more than that.

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“This is more than a mistake … something quite bad has happened to cause what’s occurred here.

Lance Burdett

Lance Burdett Photo: supplied

“It has to be more than perhaps they haven’t made a check or they haven’t done a process.”

He said there were strict rules for checking on and caring for prisoners in police custody and records had to be signed off by a senior officer.

Anyone arrested would be given a risk factor after the arresting officer weighed up the person’s health and wellbeing. A medical condition, unstable thoughts or being intoxicated might require getting a doctor or nurse as well as regular checks. Suicidal thoughts might require providing a prisoner with 24-hour supervision.

The decision to lay the charges had not been taken lightly, Burdett said.

Police have consulted with the Crown Prosecutor who has gone to a Queen’s Counsel before the charges were laid.

During his career in the force Burdett led an investigation into a serious alleged assault by police officers.

WorkSafe confirmed it was notified of the death, and said it made initial inquiries but no further action was taken after it learned an internal police investigation was under way to determine the cause of death.

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Police Minister Stuart Nash said the manslaughter charges showed how seriously authorities were taking the matter.

Nash extended his sympathies to the victim’s family, saying it was a difficult time for them and also the wider police force, and said the police investigation had been professional and detailed – and the charges reflect the gravity of the situation.

The Police Association said it was providing support to the three officers facing charges.

Association president Chris Cahill said any death of a person in police custody was a tragic situation for the family of the deceased and for the officers involved.

Cahill said he has been made aware that no force or violence was used by the officers.

“The death is not alleged to have occurred because of any application of force by any police officers … I’m aware that’s a fact.”

He told Checkpoint it was the absence of something (rather than the use of force) that had led to the charges and all the matters would be covered in the court process.

He was unaware of any police staff facing similar charges in New Zealand’s history.

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Former Courts Minister and police officer Chester Borrows, who has also headed the Criminal Justice advisory group, says police in rural areas are under more pressure than ever.

“There are other things to contend with too like for instance the lack of supervision – frequently working on your own or with one other person who might not have more experience than the other officer.

“So there are those sorts of pressures in staffing country stations.”

Borrows said that in a small community, everyone involved in the case would be well known.

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