25 Feb 2014

Police say doctor didn't examine man in cell

12:18 pm on 25 February 2014

A doctor called to assess a man in custody in South Auckland hours before he died did not physically examine him, police have revealed.

On Sunday police said the arrested man, who was aggressive and violent, was assessed by a doctor, but on Monday said that assessment was only a look through a cell window.

Superintendent John Tims speaking to media on Monday.

Superintendent John Tims speaking to media on Monday. Photo: RNZ

The 20-year-old was arrested in Manurewa for breaching the peace and taken to the Counties Manukau police station early on Sunday morning to sober up.

He was found four hours later in his monitored single cell with breathing difficulties. Paramedics and officers tried to resuscitate him, but he died after 40 minutes of CPR.

Superintendent John Tims on Monday clarified exactly what police meant when they said the man had been assessed by a doctor.

"He looked through the glass door at him, but because of his violent and aggressive nature, the assessment was made by the doctor that he wouldn't go into the cell, and so the doctor then left."

Mr Tims wouldn't give any further details about the man, how he was restrained or whether he had a pre-existing medical condition. He said investigations are under way and the cause of death is still unknown.

The death has been referred to the coroner and is also being looked into by the Independent Police Conduct Authority.

Cell death intolerable, says advocate

A prison reform advocate said on Monday there are too many unanswered questions about the man's death.

Prison Reform Society president Peter Williams, QC, said people dying in police custody is intolerable and more information is needed to determine what exactly happened.

"He had been in custody four or five hours so it's very hard to believe that he was drunk or he was violent at the time of his death. Now, was the doctor recalled? The doctor should have been recalled. Was he assaulted? Are there bruises on his body? I mean, we don't know all these things."

Police say the doctor was never called back and the man wasn't injured in his arrest.

Police Association president Greg O'Connor says officers do all they can to ensure that people are safe in cells: "For the number of drunk, drugged people we do get in our cells, it's remarkable how few of these incidents there are."