Police misconduct hearing set to make findings over death of vulnerable woman

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A 35 year old woman from Darwen, Lancashire, Kelly Hartigan-Burns, was found unresponsive in a cell at Greenbank Police Station in Blackburn at around 1.30am on 4th December 2016, having self-ligatured.

She was taken to hospital and put on a life support system. She was pronounced dead the following day.

Misconduct hearing set to open

Almost five years later, a Lancashire Constabulary misconduct hearing will open on Monday 27th September, 2021, to examine the actions of the custody desk officer charged with her care at the station. 

A statement on the force website says: “It is alleged that whilst former officer, Police Sergeant Jason Marsden was booking a member of public into [police] custody on 3rd December 2016, his management of the detainee fell short of the standards of a competent custody officer in failing to correctly apply applicable legislation, the [College of Policing’s] Authorised Professional Practice and/or the Code of Ethics.

However, the subject officer retired just under a month ago. His profile on LinkedIn states that he joined the force in November, 1994. Officers normally retire after 30 years service in order to preserve full pension. It is not clear, at the present time, what prompted Jason Marsden to take this step so soon before the misconduct hearing.

He denies all the allegations against him but will not appear in these proceedings, represented instead by both by his own barrister, Sarah Barlow, and one from the Police Federation. The chief constable, as ‘appropriate authority’ and in whose corporate name the misconduct hearing is convened, is represented by Charles Apthorp.

‘Lancs’, as they are almost universally known in policing circles, is the territorial police force responsible for policing the ceremonial county of Lancashire in North West England. Its headquarters are are situated at Hutton, near Preston.

The Panel for the misconduct hearing is made up of Paul Forster – Legally Qualified Chair, Superintendent Kevin McLean – Police Panel Member, Chris Lindley – Independent Member. order PS Witnesses do not take oaths in police misconduct proceedings and the allegations faced by fare not criminal charges.

The hearing was originally scheduled for three weeks but is now expected to take a week less following the non appearance of ex-PS Marsden.

Kelly Hartigan-Burns biography

Kelly’s family describe her as bright and positive. She was training to be an accountant after leaving school and making plans for the future. However, this was impacted by the sudden and traumatic death of her father.

She lived with her civil partner, Colette, who also sadly died, in 2020, before learning the full details of what had happened to Kelly.

Bolton-born Kelly had a history of mental ill health, self-harm and alcohol misuse. She was under the care of community mental health professionals in East Lancashire NHS Trust. At the end of November 2016, Kelly’s family became increasingly concerned about her.

On 3rd December 2016, Kelly walked out of the home she shared with Colette in Darwen after an argument. Members of the public reported seeing her on a main road in her pyjamas. Lancs police officers attended and took her home, where Cal explained that she was vulnerable and needed care, and that matters between them had just got temporarily out of hand.

Kelly was not, however, detained under section 136 Mental Health Act powers but was arrested for common assault and taken to the police station, still in her pyjamas. Sergeant Marsden was responsible for booking Kelly into custody, and there is evidence that he failed to conduct an adequate assessment of the risk Kelly faced.

The misconduct hearing is expected to last three weeks. An inquest into Kelly’s death is listed for early 2022. Kelly’s family have already waited an inordinate, and unbearable, length of time to learn for themselves how she died and whether any officer will finally be held to account.

Family tributes to Kelly

Kelly’s mother, June Hartigan, said: “She was loved by everyone that met her, she was doing fantastic at a young age. She loved spending time with family and was very supportive, always trying to help people if they were struggling.

“Unfortunately, she had faced significant challenges, including traumatic bereavements and car accidents, which contributed to her mental ill health. However, during her recovery she worked part time, whilst studying to successfully gain a degree, and was making plans for the future.

“I miss her so much; it is heart wrenching and I don’t think this pain will ever change. We have waited so long for answers and I often worry that she has been forgotten. I hope this hearing can begin to help us understand the truth about what happened, and make sure it never happens again.”

Kelly’s brother, Stuart Hartigan, posted on Facebook last week:
“My sister Kelly Hartigan was taken away from us during a completely avoidable mental health episode. The family are in a legal battle with Lancashire Police. The hearing for the custody sergeant starts on Monday, so before you see it in the media, this is what I’m saying.
“Rest assured the family will not be bullied by the police, we will fight with everything we have to get justice. We’ve not given up at any point in the last 5 years, and we won’t be giving up anytime soon.
“In my heart Kelly is still here with me, and I miss her everyday, I will always cherish her and the love she had for my kids and the wider family. They will grow up not knowing their aunty and this is the thing that upsets me the most.
“The family will be shortly setting up a Facebook page to highlight the campaign and legal fight we have set in motion, it’s very costly, but we feel it’s worth it. Everyone, even the police themselves, need to follow the rules. We can help prevent future loss of life. People suffering mental health episodes need ‘CARE not CUFFS’.
“I’ve had to hold back lots of details so as not to jeopardise the case, which in itself is an absolute joke. The anger is insurmountable.
“All the Hartigans and Bottomleys, and Kelly’s many friends, will stay strong and see this through”.
Comments from the professionals assisting Kelly’s family

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said:

“It is clear that Kelly was a woman in crisis, in need of care and specialist support – not custody. Serious questions must now be asked of the officers who allowed her detention and failed to keep her safe. This family has waited far too long for answers and accountability. It is vital that this hearing proceeds with urgency to begin to address that.”

Carolynn Gallwey of Bhatt Murphy, who legally represent the family, said:

“Kelly’s family have waited with great dignity and patience, for almost five years for the facts of her death to be the subject of any public scrutiny – this hearing is hugely important for them but also for public confidence in the police. We hope that all concerned will put those concerns front and centre”.

The family are also represented by INQUEST Lawyers Group member Fiona Murphy of Doughty Street Chambers. They are supported by caseworker Caroline Finney.

Nationally known justice campaigner, Gail Hadfield Grainger, who also runs her own legal consultancy with Mags McNally, has been supporting Kelly’s mother, June Hartigan, for the past couple of years. She says:

“This is yet another troubling case where a victim has needlessly died following police contact. It is very arguable that, given appropriate care and attention, Kelly would be amongst us and thriving today. The fact that the policwe sergeant at the centre of the controversy has been allowed to retire, five years after the incident but only a very short time before his misconduct hearing, genuinely sickens me. As it has done to the rest of the bereaved family.

“Nevertheless, I am very keen to support their Care Not Cuffs campaign and urge as many others as possible to lend their voice to it”.

Deaths of women in police custody:

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) report that between 1st April, 2005 and 31st March, 2021, there were 38 deaths of women in or following police custody. Further statistical information is available  the police watchdog’s website (read here). These are some of the most troubling cases:

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Claire Harper, aged 41, was found unconscious and unresponsive in a police cell in Trafalgar House Police Station in Bradford (pictured above) and later died in the city’s Royal Infirmary. The incidents occurred in January, 2018. An IOPC investigation into the actions of West Yorkshire Police is complete and the inquest touching Claire’s death is awaited.

Miranda Stevenson, aged 42, died a ‘sudden death during alcohol and drug withdrawal’ at Guildford Police station on 31 May 2015. An inquest jury found that Miranda died suddenly following abnormal breathing recorded on CCTV at 7.29pm. Despite multiple ‘welfare checks’ she remained in her cell for a further 12 hours until a Surrey Police officer entered the following morning at 7.15am. A police sergeant and three detention staff were reprimanded following the incident.

Martine Brandon, aged 48, died a self-inflicted death in a cell at Southampton Central police station, in 2014, after choking on her underwear. IPCC investigators described Martine as “a very vulnerable person”. She had been arrested rather than detained under mental health powers. An inquest found serious failings in the care she received from Hampshire Constabulary, including in communication and monitoring. The police watchdog said two officers and two detention staff had committed misconduct by not checking on Ms Brandon, as well as making inappropriate comments while she was in custody. A third police officer was found to have committed misconduct, but left the force before the investigation was completed and therefore could not be disciplined.

Sharmila Ullah, aged 30, died in 2014 after she was held at Bloxwich police station. Whilst in police custody she became unwell and was taken to hospital. She was returned to the police station the next day. The inquest concluded her death was likely due to the effects of withdrawal. A West Midlands Police officer was sacked for gross misconduct for failing to conduct cell visits which had been documented. A misconduct hearing found that he had lied. 

Toni Speck, aged 31, was found slumped in a cell at Fulford Road Police Station and later died in hospital in 2011. She was detained by North Yorkshire Police under the Mental Health Act. The jury concluded that the custody nurse called to the cell should have realised she required urgent medical treatment and a transfer to a hospital emergency facility. Since Toni’s death, the National Health Service is now required to provide health-based places of safety where the police can take people suffering from mental health problems to be assessed, rather than admitting them to police custody.  

Page last updated at 0845hrs on Tuesday 28th September, 2021

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Photo credit: Hartigan family

© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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