UK Police Warned Over Van Cells

UK police forces are to be warned of potential problems with cells fitted into police vans, following a Police Ombudsman investigation into the death of a 21-year-old man in County L'Derry 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 on 27 January. He had been arrested at his home and was being taken to Maghaberry Prison when the incident happened. He was treated at the scene and taken 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 found the van’s cell door was misaligned with its frame and its latches did not always fully engage. 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.

Both officers told the investigation they had seen the dead lock in the cell door engaging after the door was closed. One officer said she had pulled on the cell door twice to check it was locked.

But Dr Maguire said the forensic examination had shown 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The officers were subsequently disciplined by PSNI, but a later appeal resulted in sanctions being withdrawn.

Dr Maguire has recommended that cells and other modifications made to police vehicles should form part of normal service routine. Other recommendations have resulted in a number of modifications to PSNI cell vans.

Notices have been attached to van cell doors warning officers to check locks are fully engaged and 'blanking plates' have been fitted to prevent cell doors being opened from the inside. 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.


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