Police officers failed a vulnerable and suicidal woman after arresting her and putting her in a police cell where she killed herself, an inquest jury has found.
Kelly Hartigan-Burns, 35, died in December 2016 after she was treated with “reckless indifference”, campaigners say, by police in Blackburn. She had been arrested after members of the public spotted her late at night walking in and out of traffic in her pajamas saying she wanted to die.
Her family fought for an inquest to be held, believing she was failed by Lancashire constabulary at every level, from the control room to the response on the street, in her home and at the police station.
A jury at Preston coroner’s court agreed, concluding that “if officers had shown more compassion, acted diligently, practiced common sense, followed guidance and procedure from the moment they found Kelly and throughout her detention, there may have been a different outcome”.
The jury gave an open conclusion, with a narrative detailing a litany of failures that they said contributed to her death.
In October 2021 a finding of gross misconduct was made against Jason Marsden, the custody sergeant involved in Hartigan-Burns’ case, barring him from returning to work for the police.
After the arrest late on December 3, 2016, police officers took Hartigan-Burns home to her partner, Cal, who was a mental health nurse. Cal warned police that she was a suicide risk, and police incident logs showed five separate mental health incidents involving Hartigan-Burns in the previous year.
But instead of using their powers in mental health cases to take Hartigan-Burns to a place of safety, police arrested her for common assault arising from an argument she had had with Cal that evening.
No consideration was made of her mental health history when she was put in a cell with no CCTV, and she was left on her own when the custody sergeant left two hours early without checking on her. His colleagues did not check either until she was found unresponsive in the cell and was taken to hospital where she died.
June Hartigan, Kelly’s mother, said: “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. ”
Deborah Coles, the director of the Inquest campaign group, 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. ”