21 Oct 2019

Intoxicated man held in suicide watch cell due to lack of detox centres, inquest told

6:32 pm on 21 October 2019

A lack of detox centres meant a young man was held in a South Auckland police cell which he'd later die in, an inquest has heard.

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Photo: RNZ/Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Sentry Taitoko, 21, died in a suicide watch cell at Counties Manukau Police station in February 2014.

The inquest into his death opened at the Auckland District Court today.

In the sleepless days leading to up to his death, Mr Taitoko consumed a cocktail of methamphetamine, alcohol and LSD.

On the evening of 22 February 2014, Mr Taitoko was arrested for breaching the peace after having a "bad trip" on LSD.

Earlier in the night, he was his brother's house in Manurewa when police were called after Mr Taitoko's brother and friends struggled to control him.

He was taken to Counties Manukau Police Station and placed in a suicide prevention cell, which had no furniture and operating CCTV cameras.

Today, a coronial inquest heard Mr Taitoko threw his body around the cell, hitting the floor and walls.

He was monitored by officers and briefly a doctor throughout the night - both in person and through CCTV cameras.

Coroner Debra Bell said the CCTV cameras in the cell later switched off as Mr Taitoko had settled down and appeared to go to sleep.

"At 4:26am on the morning of 23 February 2014, Mr Taitoko's camera in his cell stopped recording. He was subsequently checked and was found to have breathing difficulties. An ambulance was called but unfortunately Mr Taitoko could not be resuscitated."

Former sergeant Grant Turvey said there was a steady stream of prisoners on the night Mr Taitoko was taken to Counties Manukau Police Station.

He told the inquest Mr Taitoko was carried in, horizontally, by two officers who were struggling to control him. He was then placed inside a cell where he would be frequently monitored, Mr Turvey said.

"Mr Taitoko was out of control with his behaviour. In all of my policing career, I had never seen anyone behave like this before.

"It was like he was bouncing off the walls, he was doing it numerous times. He would hit his head on the wall, fall over, hit his head on the floor, then get up and start over again.

"To me, it looked like he was hitting his head quite hard."

Mr Turvey said a doctor, who has interim name suppression, had come to the station to assess another prisoner but was also asked to look at Mr Taitoko.

He told the inquest the doctor went to assess Mr Taitoko but couldn't as his behaviour was "extreme". It was then he noticed redness on Mr Taitoko's forehead and a graze on the back of his head.

"Doctor ... commented on the redness, so I knew he was aware of it."

Mr Turvey said it had earlier been agreed Mr Taitoko couldn't be taken to hospital because of his behaviour and would be assessed by a doctor before release. He said the doctor was satisfied with this and left the station.

But not long after, Mr Turvey said during a visual check of Mr Taitoko an officer noticed some blood on the mattress he was lying on.

Upon closer inspection, officers noticed a pool of blood beneath his head and his breath was short and gargled.

Mr Turvey said paramedics were called and officers attempted CPR but Mr Taitoko died a short time later.

The officer in charge of the police's investigation into the death, Detective Senior Sergeant Ross Ellwood, earlier told the inquest Mr Taitoko was put into the cell as there was nowhere else he could go.

"I think when it comes to choice between leaving someone to sleep it off in their own bed or to being somewhere where they can be regularly monitored, you know, I'd personally want to have someone being monitored and checked on."

In 2014, hospitals wouldn't admit someone in Mr Taitoko's condition, he said.

"Due to the fact he was aggressive, and violent, and quite severely intoxicated, so therefore difficult to manage.

Mr Ellwood said if there were specific detoxification centres, the level of care would be very different.

"If you had a detoxification centre there would be the health aspect to it. Police cells are intended for housing prisoners, not intended for as a health complex."

The five-day inquest will resume at the Auckland District Court tomorrow.