Belfast Telegraph

Jim McCotter inquest told former PSNI officer 'erred in judgment' over release

By Angela Rainey

A former police sergeant has been accused in court of "erring in professional judgment" by releasing a suicidal man who took his own life hours later.

In the second day of the inquest of west Belfast man Jim McCotter (29), retired Sergeant Dianne Armstrong was accused of "failing" in her duty by releasing him against the advice of her superior, Inspector John Stewart, and the wishes of his family.

The father-of-one had been taken into custody on August 12, 2012, following concerns from his family that he would attempt to take his own life. They had asked that he was not released without them knowing as they did not want him to be on his own.

During cross-examination, counsel for the family Paul Bacon recounted the multiple times Mr McCotter made threats to kill himself that day.

After he accused Dianne Armstrong of making an error of professional judgment, the officer strongly denied the claim and accused Mr Bacon of "grandstanding".

On arriving in custody, when Sgt Armstrong was not yet on shift, it was recorded that Mr McCotter had said: "I will be dead by the morning."

Sgt Joanne Cassidy recorded in McCotter's notes that he was threatening suicide and that she had asked the police doctor to see him, which Mr McCotter declined, and wrote a warning in red pen on a white board used to brief staff.

When asked if Sgt Armstrong had read the board, she said she had "glanced at it" as there "was information on it about at least 11 other prisoners".

She also said that she received a briefing lasting only 57 seconds regarding all detainees in the shift handover, which she remarked was "inadequate for one person, let alone 11".

As the cross-examination became heated, Mr Bacon accused her of "feeling aggrieved" that the Police Ombudsman called into question her actions and accused her of being "evasive" and "angry" by being "blissfully unaware" that Mr McCotter's intentions had been documented.

He said she "had overruled" the guidance of her superior, Inspector Stewart, who had a "gatekeeping role" and who had advised that Mr McCotter was charged and detained for the night then taken to court.

Sgt Armstrong rejected the claim, saying she knew her role as custody officer, and believed that to detain Mr McCotter was against the law and his human rights. She said that the "gatekeeping role doesn't mean anything, really it's a made-up term in the PSNI".

She then accused Mr Bacon of "throwing a cheap shot", saying she did recognise authority.

He said: "The responsibility lay with you. It was incumbent to look at the whiteboard and see the name James McCotter, having also been briefed that he was suicidal.

"Is it not the case that you erred in your professional judgment that day, that you felt aggrieved that you have been brought in by the Ombudsman about your professional judgment? That you felt angry about Mr McCotter, that you made the remark that his family should have taken him to hospital and that he was not failed by those in the custody suite?"

Sgt Armstrong responded: "We are talking about the death of someone here.

"This is a serious matter, a man has died here and you are grandstanding by goading me, asking me to recall conversations from five years ago. Why don't you just play the tape?"

Mr Bacon told the court that just before release, Mr McCotter had said in her presence: "I don't care, see to be honest, I might not be alive by the time this goes to court because I have definitely had enough".

Sgt Armstrong denied hearing the remark.

The hearing is set to conclude tomorrow.

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