The PSNI is to warn UK police forces over adapted police vans, following a Police Ombudsman investigation into the death of a 21-year-old man from Maghera in 2012.
Paul Somerville died four days after sustaining serious head injuries when he fell from the rear of a moving police van at Church Street in Maghera, County Derry/Londonderry, on 27 January 2012. He had been arrested at his home minutes earlier and was being taken to Maghaberry Prison when the incident happened.
A doctor from a nearby health centre provided treatment at the scene before Paul was taken by ambulance to Antrim Area Hospital, where he later died.
The incident was referred by police to the Police Ombudsman’s Office for independent investigation.
A forensic examination conducted as part of that investigation found that the van’s cell door was misaligned with its frame and that its latches did not always fully engage, even when the door was slammed shut. It also found that a deadlock did not engage unless the key was turned anticlockwise through a full 90 degrees, even though a locking bolt could be seen moving as the key was turned.
The Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, has since made a series of recommendations for improvements to such cell vans, and these have since been implemented by the PSNI.
He also concluded that the two police officers who accompanied Paul in the van, failed in their duty to ensure his safety by failing to ensure the cell door was secure.
Both officers said they had seen the dead lock in the cell door engaging after the door was closed, and one said she had pulled on the cell door twice to check it was locked.
However, Dr Maguire pointed out that the forensic examination had shown that the door opened easily when pulled if it had not been properly secured. Tests also showed that even when the door’s latches did not engage, the door would not open if the deadlock had been fully locked.
The officers were subsequently disciplined by PSNI, but later exercised a right to appeal. This ultimately resulted in the disciplinary sanctions being withdrawn by the PSNI District Commander for the area in which the incident occurred.
Two people spoken to by Police Ombudsman investigators following the incident reported that they had seen a man jumping from the rear of the police van. However, they refused to provide formal statements to that effect.
Forensic evidence indicated that it would have taken a deliberate action by Paul to open the van’s rear door, as it could only be opened by pulling on a handle.
Enquiries also established that police in Magherafelt had reported a suspected fault with the door when the van had been sent for service four days before the incident.
The mechanic who did the service recalled that the door had been misaligned and said he had fixed the problem. However, the issue was not entered on the vehicle’s records, as it was not part of its normal service routine.
Dr Maguire has since recommended that cells and other modifications made to police vehicles should form part of their normal service routines.
Other recommendations made by the Police Ombudsman have resulted in a number of modifications to PSNI cell vans. Notices have been attached to van cell doors warning officers to check that locks are fully engaged; “blanking plates” have been fitted to prevent cell doors being opened from the inside; and new and much larger viewing panels have been fitted to improve the ability of officers to monitor prisoners from the front of cell vans while they are moving.
Given that the same design cell is used widely by other UK police forces, and is still being fitted to new vehicles, the PSNI has said it will share the findings of the case with police across the UK.