By Mattias Bernhardsson, civil attorney for the victim’s parents and City-Councillor
|Civil attorney and City-Councillor Mattias Bernhardsson examines the police internal investigation|
How could this happen? How can a person in custody commit suicide by hanging in a Swedish lockup? His parents feel they didn’t get answers from the police. When the local newspaper ‘Mitt i Haninge’ stated in an article titled “Suicide under arrest won’t be investigated” that the police weren’t going to conduct a judicial investigation, the police reported them for ‘slander’; they asserted that they had in fact investigated. The police’s internal investigation into official misconduct was shut down after only 4 days with the conclusion that no one had done anything wrong.
Sercan’s family contacted me and asked me to investigate what happened. I was designated civil attorney for his parents and demanded to be allowed to review the internal investigation. CU, the internal investigators, provided me with all the material and I have studied it; I have also reconstructed the events in the cell where Sercan was placed in custody. I have also studied the records from the National Board of Forensic Medicine, and the pictures and analysis from the autopsy. My investigation was impartial. But since the Södertörn Precinct was not as obliging of Sercan’s family’s wish for clarity around the events and refused my request to study their materials for ‘security reasons’, there are still many questions left unanswered.
During my reconstruction of events in Cell No. 6 at the Handen police station – following the course of events and from the resources available in the internal investigation – I found the following:
a. The chair that is fastened to the wall sits almost directly under the ventilation grating in the ceiling. None of the furniture in the cell can be moved.
b. By standing on the chair, I could thread the bed sheet (of the same type described in the investigation) through the grating. This took less than two minutes.
c. The bed sheet in the cell is made of fabric with a tearing strength of 10.6 kg/cm2 and a tensile strength of 44.5/43.2 dekanewton (daN); a quality material that can support the the body weight of a full-grown man by a large margin.
The placement of the chair is beneath contempt, and the choice of sheet is based on questionable reasoning. The explanation from the police for using a fabric sheet instead of a paper sheet (which is normal in lockups) is that the fabric sheet has a good fire rating (M1), and that paper sheets can be torn up, moistened under water, twisted, and tied into a more solid noose. This reasoning doesn’t hold up. As regards the risk of fire, a person under custody is searched and objects that could be used to start fires or to inflict self-injury are taken away. The possibility of setting something on fire must then be seen as minimal compared to the risk of using something the police themselves provide – in this case, the sheet. Tearing up a paper sheet, moistening the different pieces under water, twisting them, and then tying the different pieces together to get strength out of a thickly-knotted construction that is then drawn through a narrow 6x6 mm gap in the grating must be considered to be much more time-consuming.
No environment is completely suicide-proof. But the lockups at Handen police station are far from safe.
The judgement and supervision of the lockup staff
The lockup staff must conduct regular supervision, often every half hour, and must report signs of suicidal behaviour, illness, and such to the commander on duty. A person who seems suicidal must be more closely supervised, often every 10 or 15 minutes. The police claim that Sercan did not need closer supervision. After having studied the guard’s supervisory comments, I have a different picture entirely. Some excerpts from the guard’s time-stamped notes: “banging on the door”, “constantly calling on the line from his cell”, “standing by the door”, “banging on the door”, “crying”, “wants to call psychiatrist and social services”, “reports he has psychoses that come and go”, “banging on the wall”, “lying down, crying”, “calling on the cell line, wants to go to the psychiatric emergency ward”, “awake, lying down, crying”.
The supervision was not done by trained police, but by a guard. In the arrest ledger, there is the following note from Cell No. 6: “Very annoying”. Sercan was in custody from 9:45 PM on July 8 to 9:15 PM on July 9, when the guard found him lifeless – that is, over 23 hours. With the exception of several short visits to the exercise yard, a police interrogation, and a doctor’s visit, Sercan was isolated in his cell and fared badly. The commander on duty was definitely notified a number of times, and Sercan was allowed to see a doctor. But despite Sercan telling them about his psychoses and requesting to be taken to psychiatric emergency care, he was sent back into isolation in his cell instead.
The doctor was an on-call physician without proper training. When ‘Mediblå AB’, who employs the on-call physician, won their bid to provide services, the company’s competency was criticized. The county court challenged the Police Board in a ruling not to accept the Mediblå bid, since the doctors were orthopedists with no experience in lockup care.
The circumstances of the arrest
Sercan was apprehended at 8:42 PM on July 8 after a dispute with a bus driver in downtown Handen and was taken into custody at 9:10. He was booked at 12:16 AM on July 9 by the district prosecutor. Why was Sercan apprehended and why was he taken into custody? I have not been able to find the answers to these questions.
According to a witness who wishes to remain anonymous, it was a dispute between Sercan and a bus driver over an SMS pass. Sercan allegedly splashed water on the driver and said something along the lines of “Chill out”. The driver then got hold of Sercan and called the police. It is impossible to get a clearer picture, as the Södertörn precinct decided to refuse to allow both me as an attorney, as well as Sercan’s mother, to study the bus driver’s statement and Sercan’s police report on the bus driver. The police are thus claiming that Sercan’s mother cannot study her own son’s police report for “security reasons”.
Sercan called his mother from the interrogation room the same day he committed suicide and told her he’d been beaten, that he felt unfairly treated, and that he hadn’t done anything. Earlier that same day, Sercan said he wanted to file a report on the bus driver and that he wanted to talk to a doctor. “He won’t say why,” the guard wrote in his supervision notes. The note indicates that the guard (who is neither police, doctor, nor psychologist) questioned Sercan’s right to a doctor and his own police report, and interrogated Sercan.
The forensic autopsy in relation to the circumstances of the arrest
In the detention report it states: “No visible injuries...”. But the National Board of Forensic Medicine report and photographs from the forensic autopsy – which I have studied – show something entirely different. The external examination shows that Sercan was subjected to violence: “At the rear of the crown of the head, with a centre 3 cm to the right of the centre line, a swelling measuring approximately 4x5 cm in size. At its centre an irregularly formed, red-brown scab approximately 1 cm long.” “On the outer edge of the left eye socket there is an irregularly formed, broken red-brown scab approximately 1 x 0.3 cm angled downwards towards the ear.” There are also bruises and skin abrasions on the leg. The medical examiner’s report concludes that the broken ribs came from resuscitation efforts, but not the injuries to the back of the head or the face, or the bruises on the legs. The report argues that the appearance of these injuries (which I described in the quote above) “indicate they were caused by non-specific blunt force trauma, by estimate within a few days prior to death”. The police must explain why, in the detention report, it states that Sercan had no visible injuries.
The secretiveness of the police
Whether it was the bus driver, the police, or someone else who inflicted these injuries on Sercan cannot be answered without the material the police refused to let us study. Regardless of who it was, the autopsy shows that he was hit on the back of the head from behind.Sercan’s family deserve to have their questions answered so that they can mourn their son and get closure. The secretiveness of the police and the treatment of Sercan’s family can only mean they are trying to wash their hands of the responsibility. A completely open investigation could have shown – apart from the obvious shortcomings in the lockup and supervision – that Sercan shouldn’t even have been apprehended, or at least taken into custody and isolated in a cell for such a long time.
Therefore, Sercan’s family and I demand that the police bring forth all documents immediately.
Civil attorney for the victim’s parents and City-Councillor for the Socialist Justice Party in Haninge
Update: After the independent investigation and the report to the Justice ombudman, the National Police Board ended the contract with the private healthcare company