The Police Ombudsman has found that an incident in which a man sustained three broken fingers in police custody was accidental.
Dr Michael Maguire concluded that custody staff used reasonable force when a man refused to return to his cell, and had not deliberately caused the male’s injuries by closing the cell door on his hand.
However, he also criticised the attitude and language used by one of the two civilian detention officers involved, who admitted swearing during an angry exchange with the detainee.
The incident happened at Strand Road Custody Suite in Londonderry in February last year. Dr Maguire called himself in to investigate and the man also later made a complaint.
Police Ombudsman investigators visited the custody suite, seized CCTV footage, photographed the scene and obtained relevant police documentation. They also interviewed the two members of police staff who had been involved. CCTV showed that the incident began when the man – who had been detained for allegedly making threats to kill - asked to use the toilet, which was next door to his cell.
When he was let out of his cell he became involved in a verbal exchange with one of the detention officers, which continued as he was being returned to the cell. Both he and the detention officer were verbally aggressive and used abusive language, and the man also directed racial abuse at the detention officer. When the man was told to get back into his cell, he approached the detention officer with his finger pointed at him. Both detention officers then pushed the man back into the cell, and one slammed the door shut.
However, as the door closed, it trapped the man’s left hand against the doorframe, causing him to scream out in pain. He was taken to Altnagelvin Hospital, where it was confirmed that he had suffered fractures to his index, middle and ring fingers.
The officer who closed the door said he thought the man had been about to assault him. He denied that the injuries had been caused deliberately, but accepted that he had sworn during the incident.
A file was sent to the Public Prosecution Service, which directed that neither custody officer should be prosecuted.
The Police Ombudsman then considered whether any disciplinary action should be taken against the detention officers. He concluded that man’s injuries had been caused accidentally, at a time when the officers were using reasonable force to get him back into the cell. However, Dr Maguire found that the attitude and language used by one of the detention officers had not been appropriate. He made recommendations to the PSNI to take action in relation to this, and these have since been implemented.