As Yvonne noted yesterday, the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission have published their report into the death of Terrence Wheelock. They found no evidence that Mr Wheelock had been phsyically or sexually assaulted in custody but did make a number of recommendations as regards Garda procedure, which Yvonne has detailed. The Wheelock family remain dissatisfied and have announced that they are seeking a full public inquiry and have threatened to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights.
At this point a number of observations can be made about the both the findings contained in the report but also the procedure adopted by the Commission.
On the specific instances the Commission found that while Guards searched Mr Wheelock’s clothes for any items which might cause injury and removed his shoes which had laces, he was permitted to retain the cord of his tracksuit bands, which the medical evidence satisfies was used as a ligature. There was at this time ‘a lack of clear instruction’ on searches of prisoners. Two months after (before Mr Wheelock had passed away) a new directive was issued stating that any items which could potentially cause harm or injury should be removed. It is most dissappointing that in a place of detention (and heigtened situations for any prisoner) this was not the case prior to the summer of 2005.
Of concern is also the fact that at times Mr Wheelock went unchecked in the station for over forty minutes. The regulations required prisoners under the influence of drugs or alcohol be checked every fifteen minutes. Again, given that self-harm and suicide do not only occur in prisoners who are intoxicated this is clearly an insufficient requirement, particularly given that it should not be overly tasking to require more regular visits.
Disturbingly, it was in fact the cell alarm which had been used as the ligature point. A review of all custody cells has been ordered to ensure that ligature points do not exist.
The combination of these factors is particularly worrying given the obligations on the State when detaining citizens. We have commented repeatedly on this blog on the serious concerns expressed by various bodies, including the ECPT, about the conditions for persons in custody in this state.
In addition to these matters, a number of mistakes were also made in filling in the custody record (wrong name of arresting officer and wrong time at which Mr Wheelock was found unconscious) which would have serious repercussions for the family, who were initially sent to the wrong hospital by the Gardai. It is very easy to see how such mistakes would create deep distrust of the officers involved. Indeed one of the specific complaints of the Wheelock family was that they delayed in calling an ambulance. GSOC found that this was not the case, but that the time recorded was five minutes early. Four years ago the Morris Tribunal expressed serious concerns at the operation of the role of the Member in Charge, who has responsibility for this record, and here again similar concerns are expressed. GSOC came to the conclusion:
That An Garda Síochána introduce a specialist role for Garda members charged with the responsibility for the custody of prisoners. This dedicated custody officer role should be given to members with the necessary experience and ability to carry out such a function. The role should only be carried out by members trained to a high standard in all areas of the custody function.
This is the first report of an investigation conducted under s.102 of the Garda Siochana Act, which provides the Commission the power to conduct an independent investigation where it believes it to be in the public interest. What is also noteworthy about this case is that the Commission also exercised its power under s.84 to consider a case where the incident occured outside of the standard time limits (usually complaints must be made within six months of the incident). In this case the Commission was not actually in existence when the event occured. The requirement for this to occur is that there exist ‘good reasons for doing so’. It is encouraging to see the willingness of the Commission to exercise this power.
What is also encouraging is the breadth of the investigation conducted in this instance. The matter had previously been investigated internally and had been through the Coroners Court. Nonetheless the Commission managed to secure statements from a number of witnesses who had not previously come forward. They also secured a copy of a tape of an interview which was being conducted in the Station at the time that Mr Wheelock was found, and through forensic examination, managed to distill some of the speech in the following commotion. This evidence gave some credence to the garda explanation of events. The Commission investigation were also able to put a number of the allegations to the officers involved. This process sits in stark contrast to what would have occured during the internal investigation whereby Garda investigators can only take statements from interested parties and cannot challenge the statements given or put the evidence of others to those persons. As a result, a more complete picture could be garnered from the Commission investigation.
What is dissappointing, however, is the length of time which this investigation has taken. Following represenations from the Wheelock family, the Commission began its work in July 2007, with the report published in March 2010. While the thoroughness is essential this has still prolonged the process substantially for the families involved. It is now close to five years since Mr Wheelock’s death, and nearly three years since the jury at the coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of death by suicide. It is difficult to see how this aligns which the stated objective of the Commission “to promote public confidence in the process for resolving those complaints” (s67 of the 2005 Act).
The death of Terence Wheelock is a tragedy and, quite possible, was preventable. The GSOC investigation has provided a depth of review and findings which had not previously been conducted but it appears to have come too late to allay any of the concerns of the Wheelock family.