Lancashire police misconduct hearing after death of woman found unresponsive in Blackburn cell

A police misconduct hearing has begun into the death of a vulnerable woman who was found unresponsive inside a cell in Blackburn.

Tuesday, 28th September 2021, 8:49 am
Updated Tuesday, 28th September 2021, 2:46 pm
Kelly Hartigan-Burns, 35, from Darwen, died after she was found unresponsive in a police cell in Blackburn in December 2016

Former officer Jason Marsden, 51, was a custody desk sergeant at Greenbank police station when Kelly Hartigan-Burns, 35, from Darwen, was brought in under arrest and put in a cell late at night on December 3, 2016.

She was later found unresponsive and taken to hospital where she was put on life support and pronounced dead shortly afterwards.

A misconduct hearing is now under way to establish whether the former custody sergeant - who recently retired after joining Lancashire Constabulary in 1994 - had breached his professional duties and responsibilities that night.

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Kelly Hartigan-Burns with her mum June Hartigan

What happened?

After an assessment, crying, questions, a brief argument and struggle with officers at the custody suite desk, Ms Hartigan-Burns was put in a cell for low-risk detainees, a video recording showed.

However, the low-risk cell had no CCTV surveillance camera inside nor could it be seen directly from the custody desk.

Ms Hartigan-Burns went into the cell wearing her own clothes which included a dressing gown and pyjamas, rather than being given a special low-risk suit to wear.

The video footage was filmed from one camera above the custody desk looking down on the desk and towards a corridor of cells.

Ms Hartigan-Burns was taken inside a cell, out of the camera’s view, and further arguments and shouting could then be heard from the cell.

Charles Apthorp, presenting the misconduct case against Mr Marsden, said Ms Hartigan-Burns had a history of trying to take her own life, including throwing herself under cars, and was on medication for mental health issues.

He said the duty sergeant that night, Mr Marsden, breached professional duties and standards including protecting a detainee and showing courtesy and respect to her.

His alleged poor behaviour was aggravated because he was an experienced police officer at the time and well-placed to assess the potential risks.

Mr Apthorp explained how police misconduct hearings are ‘entirely different’ to criminal court proceedings. Witnesses will not take oaths and the misconduct allegations are not criminal charges.

He said: "The purpose is to protect the public and to maintain the high standards, good reputation, professionalism and public confidence in the police.

"Public confidence is a matter of great importance. If citizens feel unfair behaviour is left unchecked then confidence will be eroded."

He said Ms Hartigan-Burns had previously tried to take her life by jumping in front of taxis on Blackburn Road, Darwen. She was later arrested in Barley Bank Street, Darwen.

Her personal history of psychiatric medication, drug and alcohol issues was shown on a log which the custody sergeant has access to, Mr Apthorp said.

The log details should have been a warning to the custody sergeant that the detainee needed a higher-risk cell with better observation, he alleged.

Mr Marsden, whose address and age was not given, denies breaching the professional police code of conduct and the allegation of gross misconduct.

He does not intend to be at the misconduct hearing but has a legal representative on his behalf, Sarah Barlow.

The Police Federation also has a representative.

Witnesses are expected to speak throughout this week, followed by lawyers statements and the cross examination of witnesses. The whole hearing is expected to last around two weeks.