Deaths in police custody in the Cape Town Western Metropole 2000-2009

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Deaths in police custody are a global phenomenon which continues to beset policing services worldwide. Research into these deaths has provided insight into the complexity of detention and led to the institution of preventative strategies which have seen a reduction in mortality internationally. An improved understanding of the South African detention milieu may similarly assist in reducing the mortality burden in this country. This study retrospectively reviewed deaths in custody in the Cape Town Western Metropole between 2000 and 2009, with the aim of identifying local, modifiable factors to aid in death prevention. Sixty two (62) cases were reviewed. Males predominated (90.3%) in the sample, with the racial profile mirroring that of the general population. The median age of the detainees was 30.5 years. Unnatural causes of death accounted for 82% (n=51) of cases, with suicidal hanging the commonest cause (n=40). Items of clothing were used as ligatures in 80% of hangings, with gate and window bars the most common points of suspension. Time in detention averaged 863 minutes for the sample. Clinical signs of intoxication at the time of arrest was identified as a statistically significant determinant (p=0.02) of a shorter detention time (446 minutes). Ten (10) detainees were identified as either injured at the time of arrest or physically ill during detention, of which 9 succumbed to their injuries or disease. Only three of these detainees received medical attention. These findings highlight the need for urgent review of local police cell architecture to ensure an environment conducive to safe detention, with particular attention to reducing potential points of suspension for hangings. Further, the healthcare needs of detainees must be prioritised through effective training of police personnel with regard to the assessment and management of ill detainees, particularly those intoxicated at the time of arrest.

Includes bibliographical references