Bury St Edmunds inquest hears ‘fit to be detained’ assessment was ‘not adequate’

Bury St Edmunds Police Station where Robert Edwards was found unconscious in 2011 after being assessed as fit to be detained. He subsequently died.
Bury St Edmunds Police Station where Robert Edwards was found unconscious in 2011 after being assessed as fit to be detained. He subsequently died.
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A medical examination that allowed a ‘severely intoxicated’ man to remain in the police cell where he was later found unconscious was ‘inadequate’, an inquest has heard.

On May 21, 2011, Robert Peter Edwards, 55, of Culford Road, Fornham St Martin, was transferred from a ‘drunk cell’ at Bury St Edmunds Police Station to West Suffolk Hospital, where he died four days later.

Suffolk Police referred the case to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) on May 21.

An inquest into the death opened this week, with 11 jurors sworn in on Monday.

The jury heard that Mr Edwards, a known alcoholic and methadone user, was arrested on suspicion of assault shortly after 9.20pm on May 20. It followed an alleged altercation at his wife’s house, from whom he was estranged.

Police Sergeant Jason Francis decided to place him in a ‘drunk cell’ pending a medical assessment to determine whether he was fit to be detained.

Adam Stacey, IPCC deputy senior investigator, told jurors Mr Edwards had a history of alcoholic fits and had previously been admitted to hospital after suffering acute alcohol withdrawal in police custody.

Mr Edwards’ sister, Belinda Edwards, said she informed police he needed to be watched while in custody because he had been known to vomit in his sleep. None of the officers remembered any such warning, said Mr Stacey.

He told the jury a concern for the IPCC was neither Sgt Francis or Sgt Mark Whitehead thought they had responsibility for the detainee following a handover at 11.01pm.

Civilian detention officer Mark Trask recorded being unable to carry out ‘a proper rousing check’ at 10.15pm but, when nurse Jillian Kell-Saunders carried out an examination shortly after, she assessed him as fit to be detained.

She noted he was ‘intoxicated’ but ‘easy to rouse’ and lifted his head up. She found no signs of injury and asked for rousing checks every 30 minutes and to be transferred to A&E if he ‘became difficult to rouse’, the inquest heard.

Subsequent checks recorded Mr Edwards snoring, mumbling or ‘sweating heavily’, which forensic pathologist Dr Nathaniel Cary said were ‘inadequate’ rousings.

He said Ms Kell-Saunders’ examination was ‘not adequate’ as Mr Edwards had ‘impaired consciousness’ and she did not take his blood pressure, examine his abdomen or listen to his chest, which could have given staff ‘a false sense of security’ and a level of ‘misplaced tolerance’ to him.

Dr Cary told the jury alcohol and drugs were ‘a very dangerous combination’ and should have been ‘a red flag’, with inhalation of vomit and suppression of breathing among the dangers.

He said: “It was a very brief examination for a man in that state. It involved no removal of clothing and no moving of him to any great degree.”

Dr Cary said Mr Edwards died from ‘the combined effects of drug and alcohol intoxication’.

“His brain was starved of oxygen for a period of time, particularly following and when he went into cardiac arrest, and possibly before when he may have had obstructed breathing,” he said.

The inquest continues next week and is expected to last until December 20.