Tuesday, January 11, 2011

W.A. police: Death of disabled man sparks custody concerns

THE death in custody of a one-armed Aboriginal man should be investigated by the state's corruption watchdog because police cannot be trusted to investigate themselves.

A deaths in custody watch group says the disabled 51-year-old should have received immediate medical attention due to his poor health.

The man, who can be identified only as Mr Phillips for cultural reasons, died in the Kalgoorlie watch house early Saturday morning. He had been arrested and detained in the Goldfields town on Friday night.

Police said officers checked on him at 3.35am on Saturday and found him to be unwell. Officers administered first aid and CPR, and called for an ambulance, but when medics arrived they determined the man was dead.

Deaths in Custody Watch Committee deputy chairman Marc Newhouse said it was understood Mr Phillips, who'd had an arm and toes amputated and had an alcohol-abuse problem, was arrested and detained for breaching a move-on order.

"He was of extremely poor health. He should have been assessed medically straight away and either placed in hospital or in a sobering-up shelter," Mr Newhouse said.

Questions needed to be asked whether Mr Phillips was under 24/7 observation, whether he was on medication and whether police just believed he needed to "sleep it off", he said.

A full investigation by the WA Police Internal Affairs Unit was under way, and a report would be prepared for the coroner, police said.

But Mr Newhouse said the state's Corruption and Crime Commission should investigate the death, not police. Mr Newhouse said there were a lot of unanswered questions about the death, and "the community, particularly the Aboriginal community, does not have confidence in the police investigating themselves".

The deaths in custody watch group had long advocated an independent body to investigate deaths in custody, Mr Newhouse said. "The police response to that is, 'we're the only ones qualified to do it,' which is rubbish."

Mr Newhouse said that in December, Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan had called for the state's Inspector of Custodial Services to investigate deaths in police custody. Mr O'Callaghan had also wanted medical personnel to be on 24-hour call to assess those in custody. "That's extremely relevant for this most recent death in Kalgoorlie," Mr Newhouse said.

Police Minister Rob Johnson said he would not comment on the death due to the police inquiry.


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