Deaths in police custody

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.312.7022.56 (Published 06 January 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:56
  1. Vinod Patel
  1. Consultant physician (diabetes and endocrinology) George Eliot NHS Trust, Nuneaton, Warwickshire CV10 7DJ

    EDITOR,—During the past 12 months 15 deaths have occurred in police custody in Britain, according to the national police authorities. Forensic investigation has comprised at least a postmortem examination in all cases, and in only one case is prosecution of the police officer concerned pending. It therefore seems that in some circumstances a pathological entity exists that predisposes subjects in police custody to certain forms of natural death. Underlying cardiomyopathies, cardiac valve lesions, and cardiac conduction defects have all been mooted as causes of death. Among potential hypotheses to explain this phenomenon are supranormal secretion of catecholamines and supranormal surges in blood pressure due to the psychological and physical stress of police custody.

    I believe that a prospective confidential inquiry into the cause of deaths in police custody should be set up. It is imperative that the BMA is not perceived by the public to be in complicity with the police authorities on this issue. The effect of such a perception on the South African Medical Association in the 1980s was all too evident. We need to ascertain and document the cause of death in all cases. Such an inquiry could serve to identify a hitherto unknown clinical syndrome and allow preventive measures to be taken against deaths in police custody.

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