Officer failed to properly search or monitor man who died in custody, says IOPC

An investigation into the death of a man who choked on a package of drugs in police custody has found an officer failed to adequately search or monitor him.

Jan 22, 2024
By Paul Jacques

An inquest, which concluded last week at East London Coroners’ Court, determined that Andrzej Kusper, aged 38, died as a result of foreign body airway obstruction.

Mr Kusper became unresponsive and died at around 8pm on September 4, 2021, at Leyton Custody Centre in East London.

The inquest jury concluded that “incomplete and unsatisfactory” police searches of Mr Kusper probably caused or contributed to his death.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) said it began an investigation after it was notified by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) that evening.

“We established that at approximately 5.40pm on September 4, two MPS officers were conducting proactive patrols in plain clothes on Leasowes Road, Leyton,” said the IOPC. “They stopped Mr Kusper and one of the officers searched him on suspicion of drug possession.

“He was handcuffed to the front and the officer found a small package containing a white substance and subsequently arrested him on suspicion of possessing a Class A drug.

“When putting Mr Kusper into the back of a police van an officer noticed Mr Kusper putting his hand in his pocket. The officer then searched Mr Kusper inside the police van but didn’t find anything.

“The officer did not notice Mr Kusper putting his hand to his mouth during this search. After the van doors were closed, the van CCTV footage showed that a bulge appeared in Mr Kusper’s cheek.

“The officer didn’t see this during the journey to Leyton Custody Centre.”

After arriving at the custody centre, officers noticed that Mr Kusper had something in his mouth and asked him to open it.

“When the officers saw something, they instructed him to spit it out. Officers took Mr Kusper down to the floor where he became unresponsive and the London Ambulance Service was called, while officers provided CPR.

Mr Kusper was pronounced dead at the custody suite shortly after 8pm.

An inquest jury found that failings in both police searches of Mr Kusper probably caused or contributed to his death. They described both searches as “incomplete and unsatisfactory.”

They also found that the police monitoring of Mr Kusper on his way to the custody suite in the police van probably caused or contributed to his death and said there was a “missed opportunity” to see the package in Mr Kusper’s mouth.

They concluded that there were failings in the actions of officers in the custody suite, namely a lack of leadership and poor communication, and that this possibly caused or contributed to his death.

The inquest jury also found that Mr Kusper’s own actions contributed to his death, by failing to mention the package during the search, putting the item in his mouth in the van and keeping it hidden in his mouth at the custody suite.

THe IOPC said its investigation looked at the police interaction with Mr Kusper prior to his death including his search and arrest, the actions of officers and custody staff during and after his transport to custody and whether their actions were in line with local and national policies.

A post-mortem report identified that he died due to an obstruction in his airway. A large amount of blue plastic material, which contained packages of cocaine and a by-product of heroin, was found in Mr Kusper’s windpipe.

“At the conclusion of our investigation in November 2022, we decided that the officer who searched Mr Kusper inside the custody van should face a misconduct meeting for breaching the police standards of professional behaviour of duties and responsibilities,” the IOPC said.

“This related to their failure to adequately search Mr Kusper following his arrest and for failing to properly monitor him during his transport to custody.

“A misconduct meeting which was held by the force, decided that there would not be a disciplinary outcome for the officer but instead they would go through the reflective practice review process (RPRP) to consider opportunities for learning.

“We also found that two officers based in the MPS’ Directorate of Professional Standards should go through the same process for their mishandling of exhibits.

“One officer stored a water bottle in the same bag as Mr Kusper’s phones, which leaked and damaged the phones. The other officer incorrectly stored biological samples following the post-mortem examination which affected the ability to analyse them.”

IOPC Regional Director Charmaine Arbouin said: “Our thoughts are with Andrzej Kusper’s family, loved ones, and everyone affected by his death.

“We conducted a detailed investigation, independent of the police, in order to establish the circumstances of this tragic incident.

“While it’s clear Mr Kusper placed the item in his mouth which he subsequently choked on, it was our view that the officer’s lack of attention in searching and monitoring Mr Kusper on the way to custody meant the item was not seen before he put it in his mouth.

“This incident shows the importance of carrying out thorough searches of detainees being taken to custody and actively monitoring those being transported to custody.”

In a statement following the conclusion of the inquest into the death of Mr Kusper, MPS Commander Paul Trevers said: “I was hugely saddened to hear of Mr Kusper’s death. It is a tragedy and I cannot imagine the impact his loss has had on his friends and family. I hope the inquest has provided them with some answers.

“Now that the inquest has concluded, we will be writing to them to express our sincere condolences.

“As the coroner heard, we routinely train officers in how to keep people safe when they are arrested, in line with national guidance.

“However, we will carefully study the jury’s findings in relation to the search, and any recommendations from the coroner to consider what else we need to do.”

After Mr Kusper’s death, Commander Trevers said they quickly referred the incident to the IOPC.

It decided that the actions of the officer who searched Mr Kusper inside the custody van was not classed as gross misconduct and recommended he face a misconduct meeting for breaching the police standards of professional behaviour of duties and responsibilities, said the MPS.

It added: “The meeting chair found misconduct not proven, and determined that the officer should undergo reflective practice, which means they underwent learning and training.

“The two Directorate of Professional Standards officers were also given reflective practice about exhibit handling.

“The IOPC did not find any organisational learning about how the Met searches or transports prisoners, but they did identify some organisational learning around exhibits and training, and we have improved our practice in both of these areas as a result of these recommendations.

“We know it is important to get searches and transport right and, while we have made improvements, we know we can do better and will continue to work on this area for the safety of everyone.”

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