Victoria Police is under the spotlight following two deaths in custody in recent weeks, with an admission that police “could have done better” for a man who soiled himself and begged for medical help only, to die in hospital hours later.
The 53-year-old Chinese man died at Dandenong Hospital about 11.40am on May 13, about 15 hours after being discharged from Dandenong Police Station,in Melbourne’s southeast.
Earlier, the man had crawled from his cell on all fours, bleeding and in pain.
And on Monday, a 23 year-old man whom police say suffered from a mental illness, died in the back of an ambulance. The ABC reports that the Victoria Police Ethical Standards Department is investigating both deaths.
Interpreter’s emotional story on radio
The Chinese man’s desperate plight at the station and the lack of response from officers came to light on Monday – almost two weeks later – when the Chinese interpreter who witnessed the scene described it on Fairfax Radio.
Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius said on Monday said he had no reason to doubt the interpreter’s version of events.
But he said there was no evidence the man had suffered any physical trauma as a result of mishandling or use of force by police.
It appeared the man had died as a result of “a long-standing and pre-existing medical condition”, he said.
The interpreter, identified as Jay-Jay, said she arrived at the station about 7.45pm to interpret for the man, who had been arrested and locked up for drunkenness about 3.20pm.
She said when she looked into the cell, the man had soiled himself and she saw “blood everywhere”.
He pleaded to be taken to hospital, but police ignored his entreaties and later, about 8pm, when he was to be released she saw him crawl out of his cell on his hands and knees “like a dog”.
Jay-Jay said it was only after the man was bailed and collapsed outside the station that officers called an ambulance about 8.15pm.
Call ranked as non-urgent
An Ambulance Victoria spokeswoman said the call was initially ranked as non-urgent but was upgraded twice after paramedics received more information about the man’s condition.
They arrived just before 9pm to find him conscious, bleeding and breathing rapidly.
Mr Cornelius said CCTV footage showed the man crawling out of his cell on all fours.
“It does indeed show crawling,” Mr Cornelius told reporters.
“It is a deeply disturbing and very disappointing image, and I would have to say that I would never want to see anything like that again in my policing career.”
He said police officers should have called an ambulance then, but it was unclear if it should have been apparent earlier that medical help was needed.
He said the man had soiled himself in the cell and the police Ethical Standards Department (ESD), which began investigating the day the man died, has found blood in the cell.
“I have a sense we could have done better,” Mr Cornelius said.
“I’m very concerned that in this particular case that there were a number of opportunities for us to discharge that duty of care and it appears that our response has fallen short.”
He said the officer “ultimately accountable” for custody at Dandenong station had been switched to other duties, and further disciplinary action would be decided by ESD head, Assistant Commissioner Emmett Dunne.
Earlier death sparked concerns
It is the second death-in-custody investigation to be launched this week after a 23-year-old Meadow Heights man died early on Monday morning.
Police had arrested the man under the Mental Health Act for his own safety after he burned his hands with boiling water at his home.
He was sedated at the Broadmeadows police station and put in an ambulance, but his condition deteriorated.
He was pronounced dead at hospital at 4.45am.
Both investigations will be handled by the homicide squad and the police ethical standards branch.