Belfast Telegraph

Family of Paul Somerville who died after police van fall blast failures

By Chris Kilpatrick

The parents of a young man who died after falling from a police van have said officers failed in their duty to protect him after it was revealed a faulty door lock was not fixed four days earlier, as claimed.

Paul Somerville died four days after sustaining serious head injuries when he fell from the rear of the moving van in 2012.

He had been arrested at his home in Maghera, Co Londonderry, minutes earlier and was being taken to Maghaberry Prison when the tragic incident happened.

An investigation by the Police Ombudsman found that officers in Magherafelt had reported a suspected fault with the door when the van had been sent for service four days before the incident.

The mechanic who did the service said the door had been misaligned and claimed he had fixed the problem. However, the issue was not entered on the vehicle's records, as it was not part of its normal service routine.

Two police officers were disciplined as a result of the investigation, but the action was overturned on appeal.

Mr Somerville's parents, Desmond and Gwen, said they felt let down by the PSNI.

"When serious human error is involved, to whom can the general public go for justice?" they said.

"Our expectation was that while in police custody Paul would be safely conveyed. He should have been."

The incident happened at Church Street in Maghera on January 27, 2012.

A doctor from a nearby health centre provided treatment at the scene before Paul was taken by ambulance to Antrim Area Hospital, where he later died.

Two officers said they had seen the dead lock in the cell door engaging after the door was closed, and one said she had pulled on the cell door twice to check it was locked.

However, Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire said forensic examination had shown that the door opened easily when pulled if it had not been properly secured.

Two people spoken to by Police Ombudsman investigators following the incident reported that they had seen a man jumping from the rear of the police van. However, they refused to provide formal statements.

Forensic evidence indicated that Mr Somerville would have had to have deliberately tried to open the door, as it could only be opened by pulling on a handle.

Dr Maguire made a series of recommendations for improvements to such cell vans, which have since been implemented by the PSNI.

The recommendations made by the Police Ombudsman have resulted in a number of modifications to PSNI cell vans.

Notices have been attached to van cell doors warning officers to check locks are fully engaged; "blanking plates" have been fitted to prevent cell doors being opened from the inside; and new, larger viewing panels have been fitted to improve the ability of officers to monitor prisoners from the front of cell vans while moving.

STORY SO FAR

Paul Somerville died after sustaining serious head injuries when he fell from the rear of a moving police van. He had been arrested at his home minutes earlier and was being taken to Maghaberry Prison when the incident happened. A doctor from a nearby health centre provided treatment at the scene before Paul was taken by ambulance to Antrim Area Hospital, where he later died. The incident was referred by the PSNI to the Police Ombudsman's Office for independent investigation.

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