KUALA LUMPUR: Frequent news of deaths in police custody jeopardises the image of the police, says Selangor Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation (MCPF).
Its deputy chairman Datuk Seri A. Thaiveegan (pic) said custodial deaths warrant thorough scrutiny not just because they might be due to suspected torture, abuse, negligence or inadequate medical care, but also because they cause great emotional and psychological trauma to the bereaved family.
"It also casts doubt on the image and professionalism of the arresting or detaining authorities.
"Arrests and detentions to facilitate investigations, should not in any way increase one's chance of dying. Yet we hear increasing cases of custodial deaths. One, too many," he said in a statement on Saturday (June 12).
However, Thaiveegan said deaths in custody could also be due to natural causes, illnesses, violence, suicide or as a result of changes in human biochemistry due to shock, anxiety and psychological trauma that follows being arrested and detained.
"But the question here is whether such sudden deaths are preventable. Could there be any negligence on the part of the detaining authorities or other impairments that could exacerbate the level of vulnerability?" he said.
He added that it is now more important to review the attitude of enforcement officers in placing the value on a human life versus someone's criminal record.
Thaiveegan, who is also former Penang police chief, said it is best to uphold the best practices of the rule of law and due care among others, including CCTVs that can watch both the suspect and personnel handling the suspect.
"Given a grievously suspicious situation, such CCTV recordings can come in handy to speak a thousand words to unlock the truth and surely will be helpful to dispel any unsubstantiated allegation and criticism.
"Anyhow, despite all precaution and professionalism, a death in custody may happen to the dismay of all.
"To handle such a situation, there are and always have been, adequate laws and standard operating procedure (SOP) with an effective mechanism in place to efficiently investigate police custodial deaths," he added.
There are provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) and the Penal Code on how to go about unlocking the truth behind a custodial death with police or any other enforcement agency, Thaiveegan said.
Thaiveegan said under the CPC, the police officer in charge of the station must open a Sudden Death Report (SDR) upon receiving information of the death of a detainee under his jurisdiction.
The officer must gather all the facts leading to the death before submitting his findings to the Magistrate's office through the Deputy Public Prosecutor's office where it will be decided if an inquest should be called, he said.
"What is crucial is the police officer conducting the probe, especially when foul play is suspected, must have the conviction and dedication to uncover the truth, investigate thoroughly, fairly and fearlessly, irrespective of who could be responsible or connected to the death," he stressed.
Thaiveegan said the pillar in these SDR investigations and inquest cases is the Coroner, who is also a Magistrate.
"It is not wrong to say that the Coroner's ultimate duty is to 'unlock the truth'. The police, the medical officer (pathologist), the chemistry officer, the forensic officer and any others deemed to contribute to the evidence and inquest, are only assisting the Coroner in disentangling the web of suspicion surrounding the sudden death.
"The police undoubtedly has a responsibility of allaying rumours and suspicions surrounding such custodial deaths," he said.
Thaiveegan said a police officer who carries out an arrest and decides to detain a suspect, should also use his observatory experience to determine if the health or demeanour of the person to spot tell-tale signs of ill-health, especially when it involves older individuals, the sick and serious drug addicts before locking them up for further investigation.
"The detainee should be promptly referred to a doctor if they displayed signs of poor health. This is to double confirm that the interests of both the detainee and the custodian are protected," he said.
On claims that Indians made up to the highest number of deaths in police custody, Thaiveegan said it was a misconception.
"There are deaths involving all races. Under any circumstances, all parties should be rational.
"When such a death occurs, compassion and human decency should go towards the bereaved family. They should be assured that a thorough investigation will be done and no stones will be left unturned.
"Remedial action must be quick and comprehensive to minimise any room for suspicion of discrepancies.
"It is a herculean task to handle the psychology and trauma of the bereaved family but the police must provide the reassurance and confidence to comfort them of their doubts, fears and suspicions, surrounding the custodial death," he said.