Lancashire police ‘truly sorry’ after mentally ill woman kills herself in cell after being branded an ‘alcy’ by laughing sergeant

The mother of a ‘beautiful, clever, funny’ woman who took her own life in a Lancashire police cell says her daughter’s tragic death will remain ‘a matter of enduring shame’ for the constabulary.

By Wes Holmes
Friday, 8th April 2022, 12:30 pm
Updated Friday, 8th April 2022, 1:36 pm

Kelly Hartigan-Burns was found hanged in a cell at Greenbank police station in Blackburn at around 1.30am on December 4 2016. She was taken to hospital and died the following day.

The 35-year-old, who lived in Darwen, had a history of mental illness, self-harm and alcohol misuse, and was under the care of community mental health professionals at East Lancashire NHS Trust.

On the night of December 3 2016, a member of the public called 999 and reported seeing Kelly walking in and out of traffic in her pyjamas, saying she wanted to die. Police officers attended and took her home to her civil partner, Cal, who told them they had argued earlier that evening, and that Kelly was at risk of attempting suicide.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Tributes to Kelly outside the police station where she took her own life

Police then arrested Kelly on suspicion of common assault and booked her into a cell at Greenbank Police Station, still in her pyjamas.

The constabulary has now apologised for failing to protect her.

At Kelly’s inquest at Preston Coroner’s Court, which ran from February 28 until yesterday (April 7), a jury heard how custody staff made no efforts to ensure her safety after learning she was psychiatric medication and had a warning marker for suicide on her record.

She was forcibly placed in a cell, which was not covered by CCTV, before police had taken her name. The custody sergeant, Jason Marsden, described her as an ‘alcy’ when writing her details on a station white board, laughed with colleagues and left the station two hours early without checking on her.

Kelly and her mum June

A Lancashire police investigation carried out in October 2021 found that Marsden, 51, had committed gross misconduct through his actions – however, the hearing did not take place until a month after he had retired.

Following four weeks of evidence, the jury concluded Kelly died ‘of a self-applied ligature of unknown intention’. They also found that the absence of information relating to Kelly’s multiple episodes of attempted self-harm and suicide, which could have been obtained by the police, and a general lack of training by Lancashire police officers had contributed to her death.

The incident was initially graded as a ‘threat to life’, but the jury found no evidence to suggest that the senior officer informed other officers about any potential risk of self-harm or suicide.

They also found the way Kelly was treated within the police station increased the risk of suicide or self-harm in custody. This included the use of force against her, as one officer attempted to use a ‘leg sweep’ to restrain her – a move she was not trained in – resulting in her kicking the distressed 35-year-old instead.

Kelly Hartigan-Burns

Kelly’s mum June Hartigan said: “Today we thank the jury for their careful consideration of the evidence and their extremely serious criticisms of every layer of Lancashire police. It’s now a matter of public record – and enduring shame – how Lancashire police officers treated Kelly that night.

"For the last five years we have been tortured by what we knew must have happened, by all the things the police did wrong, and all the ways in which Kelly might have been saved. While it helps to hear that the jury could see the same level of wrongdoing, the fact it has taken five years to reach this stage means this is something of a hollow victory.

"Kelly was beautiful, clever, and funny and she should still be here with us today. She was a loving daughter, granddaughter niece, sister, aunt.”

Bhatt Murphy, representing Kelly’s family, said: “After considering 17 days of live evidence, the jury concluded that a myriad of failings led to Kelly’s death.

"Kelly’s family were entitled to place their trust in police officers to keep Kelly safe. In failing to consider glaringly relevant information or perform an adequate risk assessment on the highly vulnerable person they had taken into their custody, Lancashire Constabulary violated that trust."

Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST, a charity which provides support to bereaved families, said Kelly’s treatment was ‘reflective of a misogynistic culture within policing’.

She said: “Kelly was a woman in mental health crisis, in need of care and specialist support – not custody. Police officers treated her distress, vulnerability, and suicide risk with reckless indifference.

"The inaction and abject failure to follow police guidance and derogatory attitudes towards Kelly resulted in her preventable death.

"This is reflective of a misogynistic culture within policing, affecting the treatment that women receive. Police at a senior management level were put on notice about the safety risks to detainees. That they failed to act shows institutional resistance to learning and meaningful change for which they should be held to account.”

“WE FAILED TO KEEP KELLY SAFE”

DCC Sacha Hatchett said: "Our thoughts first and foremost are with the family of Kelly Hartigan-Burns and with all of her loved ones.

"Lancashire Constabulary owes a duty of care to all of those in our custody and they should be able to rely on us to keep them safe. We failed to do that with Kelly and for that we are truly sorry.

"Since that night we have taken a number of steps to minimise the risk of such a tragedy being able to ever happen again. This includes a number of system changes to strengthen our processes when booking people into custody and increasing training for staff on how to recognise when people are vulnerable and how they should be looked after when in our care.

"Following Kelly’s death, the matter was referred to the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) who looked into the conduct of five officers and two custody detention officers. One officer was taken to a gross misconduct hearing but retired before that hearing took place. The hearing determined that he would have been dismissed had he not retired. Another officer was subject to unsatisfactory performance procedures and management action.

"We are grateful to HM Coroner for examining this matter in such detail during the course of the inquest and to the jury for their careful consideration. As Lancashire Constabulary is a learning organisation, we will of course study their findings in detail and take on board any further lessons that we can.

"Once again, our thoughts and sympathies are with all of Kelly Hartigan-Burns’ loved ones at this time."

Don’t suffer in silence. Call the Samaritans helpline 24/7on 116 123