Death in police custody – what needs to be done?


Andriy Chernousov from the Kharkiv Social Research Institute looks at the disturbing statistics for deaths in police custody and at the failings in the present system for investigating the circumstances in each such case.

Over the last year, he says, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has become a record breaker of sorts with more than 50 Ukrainians having died while under their jurisdiction.  While not all of these were at the hands of police officers, a considerable number did involve police interference. The author mentions the deaths of Ihor Indylo, Mykhailo Stadnyk, Dmytro Yashuk, Oleksandr Razumenko and says that the list can be continued.

Death in police custody, he stresses, is always a serious matter and thorough investigation in each individual case is vital.  While this requirement is clearly articulated among others in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Ukraine’s authorities are unable to efficiently investigate such cases since they lack an effective mechanism for investigation.

Andriy Chernousov explains that the key role at present in reacting to deaths in police custody is played by the Prosecutor together with MIA top management. The Prosecutor or a high-ranking body or official within the Police on receiving information about a death in police custody instructs the Inspectorate for Personnel of the MIA Staffing Department and / or the Internal Security Service of the MIA Department for Fighting Organized Crime to carry out a check. The Inspectorate and / or officers of the Internal Security Service undertake this check using operational methods such as questioning, requesting documents, surveillance, etc. On the results of these checks a conclusion is drawn up with a detailed account of the facts, explanations, evidence, with these confirming or refuting the involvement of police officers. In most cases the Prosecutor receives conclusions justifying the police officers’ actions on the basis of which the prosecutor’s office refuses to initiate a criminal investigation. At the same time the police management using its means of discipline (right up to dismissal) issues its “verdicts” in relation to those police officers who had at least some relation to the given fact.  The duty person in the body, the person from management responsible, the officers directly involved in bringing in and / or detaining the person all get it in the neck. This list may be longer or shorter depending on the circumstances of each specific case. Such a reaction from the police management is an indirect confirmation of the violations which police officers committed in the case of a death in police hands.

What this means in short is that investigation into deaths in police custody are examined by the police themselves, this running counter to the requirements in international documents which Ukraine has ratified. These clearly state that crimes committed by public officials must be investigated by an independent body. It is simply logically impossible to have an effective investigation into cases in which police are implicated carried out by police officers themselves.

The author recommends gaining from the experience of developed democracies, focusing in his article on the United Kingdom. He explains some of the differences – in the number of deaths in police custody, the fact that a person can be held in a police unit for a maximum of 36 hours in the UK, as against 10 days in a police temporary holding facility in Ukraine, and in the financial backup with conditions better in Britain.

He points out that according to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984, the police bear full responsibility for the life and health of a person released from custody during the next 24 hours. That means that if a person who has come out of a police unit and dies during the next 24 hours, this is treated as a death in police custody.

As for investigation into such cases, the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody to a large extent is an analytical centre working to prevent such deaths. An Independent Police Complaints Commission was created after the adoption in 2004 of the Police Reform Act,   This body investigates all serious complaints, and all cases of death in police custody, as well as allegations of discrimination or corruption. The Head of the Commission answers to the Home Secretary, but is operationally independent. The Commission is made up of various types of specialists, lawyers, former police officers, doctors, human personnel specialists and others.

The author gives more detail about the system which can easily be found in English.

He concludes by stressing that Ukraine may not be the same as the United Kingdom but it also needs reform of the system for investigating complaints about the actions of the police, among which the most serious are those where a person has died in police custody. Reform of the police must touch on this area and all should follow this process closely and hope for an improvement in the situation.

Heavily adapted from the article at (mainly leaving out detail about the UK system)

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