A solicitor at Harrison Bundey in Leeds explains how, had police officers taken a young black man, who had swallowed packets of drugs, straight to hospital, he might still be alive.
On 20 February 2012, an inquest jury returned a verdict of misadventure on Reece Staples, who was 19 when he died in police custody on 9 June 2009. Reece was an exceptionally promising young footballer who had been signed by Nottingham Forest after a spell with Notts County, but had been released by the club at the start of the 2008/2009 season in company with a number of others to seek selection elsewhere. He was in the process of doing this when his girlfriend persuaded him to travel with her to Costa Rica in May 2009 with the purpose of importing back into the United Kingdom packets of cocaine. For reasons which remain unclear, the girlfriend played no part in swallowing packets but Reece did, and whilst he was initially well and normal in his behaviour, on the couple’s return to Nottingham, by around midnight on 6 June 2009 it seems that he was starting to suffer ill-effects of leakage from a packet still inside him. He went in search of his girlfriend, and when he did not find her went to the house of his aunt nearby and banged on the door to get attention and help. When nobody came, he proceeded to shatter the windscreen of two cars outside, whereupon his aunt and uncle, who had been disturbed by the noise but failed to recognise their nephew, called the police. They and others who heard the commotion described seeing a young man clearly under the influence of drugs, behaving in an erratic way, talking to himself and crying out that he was dying.
Four police constables responded to the call for assistance and in the presence of all four Reece called out that he was going to die and had coke in his belly. He said that he had been to Costa Rica three days ago and swallowed some coke packets which had burst, confirming he was talking about cocaine, and asking the officers to check with the airline to confirm that he had indeed been to Costa Rica. All four officers chose independently not to believe him. Two went on their way and the other two conveyed him to the nearest police station five minutes away. There, because there was a queue of suspects waiting to be booked in, he was placed in a holding cell, where he should have been constantly supervised and monitored by the two officers then in charge of him. CCTV evidence showed him in an agitated state banging on the door of the holding cell, slipping onto the floor, three times squatting down, defecating and examining what he had managed to expel as if looking for drugs, and later lying face down on the floor for a period of time. A police officer who visited the cell told the inquest he was hysterical. After just over an hour he was taken to the custody desk to be booked in and initially found it impossible to stand up, slipping almost to the ground, veering off in a different direction and repeatedly putting his head on his hands on the desk. He asked for water and then proceeded to spit onto the desk in front of him, saying in the hearing of at least one passing officer, ‘look, it’s really white’. This behaviour led to him being placed immediately in a cell without being given his rights to nominate a solicitor or a named person to be informed of his arrest.
CCTV pictures revealed a prolonged period of 40 minutes of agitation, when on fifteen separate occasions Reece incessantly pressed his cell buzzer. Then he became very much quieter, was eventually sick, and finally collapsed as a result of a seizure on the floor of his cell some three and a half hours after his arrest. His collapse was not discovered for roughly seven minutes, as the monitors showing coverage of his cell were situated in an area where they were not readily viewable.
The two police officers who took Reece to the station had not told the custody sergeant what Reece has said when they arrested him, either when they brought him in or later, when he was booked in. One of the officers passed on, as an afterthought, part of Reece’s comments once he had been placed in his cell, but told the inquest that he did not believe there was any truth in this tale of drugs in the stomach – despite agreeing with Reece’s uncle that the young man had appeared to be on drugs and had been calling out for or about cocaine.
In June 2011, the four constables and the custody sergeant went before a disciplinary panel on allegations of gross misconduct for their failures to respond to Reece’s plight. Reece’s mother was refused the right to have her legal representative at the panel and could not attend much of the hearing, but fortunately the officers were found guilty of gross misconduct (the custody sergeant admitted the charge and it was proved against the other four). The panel concluded that all four officers had heard what Reece had said, and that the excuses they gave for not believing him were of no substance. But to the huge distress of Reece’s mother and other members of the family, the officers were not dismissed but made subject to eighteen-month final written warnings, although the acknowledged police failings at least led to retraining and instruction to prevent a recurrence.
Could Reece have survived?
Reece died from severe cocaine intoxication; the amount of cocaine released into his body was ten times the recorded fatal dosage. The question for the inquest was to establish whether the by now admitted failings of the police officers caused or contributed to his death. During a conscientious investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), a specialist in accident and emergency medicine, with a great deal of experience in cocaine overdose and body packing, had reported in no uncertain terms that had Reece been taken to hospital at the point of his arrest, he would probably have survived with medical treatment and surgery. At the inquest, he said the chances of survival were similar if Reece had been taken to hospital immediately on arrival at the police station. But the doctor changed his mind after seeing a report contradicting his opinion from a senior Home Office pathologist prepared on behalf of the police officers, and after repeatedly shifting his opinion under questioning finally agreed with the Home Office pathologist that survival was only ‘possible’ rather than ‘probable’, even with immediate and expert medical attention. With no evidence that the police officers’ conduct contributed more than minimally to the death, there was little the jury could elaborate on.
Despite the inevitability of the conclusion, the inquest continued to examine evidence and heard from the four officers who had encountered Reece. Incredibly, they all maintained that at the roadside they had separately decided to disbelieve his account of swallowing drugs, without a word to each other or even the raising of an eyebrow. Yet one had noticed that Reece had dilated pupils; two that he was sweating and complained that he could not breathe. It was put to them that they could have been commended in the course of their duty had they taken Reece to hospital, both to protect his welfare and with a view to investigating a significant drugs importation of far greater importance than criminal damage to two windscreens. The two officers who took him to the police station could not adequately explain why they had neither been alarmed at Reece’s behaviour in the holding cell nor brought it to the attention of the custody sergeant. This officer accepted that once he had been told, however belatedly and casually, that Reece had said he had drugs in his stomach, he should have immediately reassessed the situation.
Ignorance of policy revealed
When Reece was arrested there was already policy in place which the police constables should have known about but did not, directing that anyone believed or suspected to have swallowed or concealed drugs should be taken straight to hospital. Further training has now been put in place to ensure that this is widely known, and a new instruction adds that emergency hospital attention must be sought whenever a suspect claims to have swallowed drugs. This prevents officers having to decide whether they believe a suspect. The assistant chief constable who gave evidence also undertook to remind officers of their responsibility to monitor and supervise those in a holding cell and to report any concerns to the custody sergeant immediately.
The detective inspector who gave evidence about the importation investigation that ensued after Reece’s death spoke of him having been ‘duped’ by serious criminals.
Members of Reece’s family and close friends present at the inquest were a tower of strength despite the trauma of the proceedings and the hideous realisation of the very limited outcome that was possible.
Whatever the critical semantic differences between probability and possibility, the officers who dealt with Reece on 9 June 2009 eliminated at a stroke any chance that he had of survival. Although the loss of this much loved 19-year-old remains unbearable, it would have been of immeasurable comfort to his family if he had spent the last three and a half hours of his life being cared for and sedated in hospital, even if he had ultimately died on the operating table.