Mother loses legal battle against redeployment of officer cleared of son’s police cell death

The mother of a man who died in a police cell has lost her legal battle over the redeployment of a custody officer ultimately cleared of his manslaughter.

Tuesday, 19th March 2019, 3:03 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th March 2019, 3:06 pm
David McGowan died in a cell at Lisburn police station in 2014

Sergeant Brian McKenna had been suspended following the death of David McGowan at Lisburn PSNI Station in May 2014.

Mr McGowan’s mother, Elizabeth, challenged the original decision to allow Sgt McKenna to return to work later that year.

But the Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that senior officers were entitled to temporarily revoke his suspension.

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Mr Justice McCloskey said: “He was allocated purely administrative duties and his reassignment ensured he was remote from the State investigation into the death.”

Mr McGowan, a 28-year-old from Lisburn, had been arrested over an incident in east Belfast.

His body was discovered in a police cell hours later, with a post mortem indicating death was due to the effects of alcohol and drugs.

Sgt McKenna had faced charges of manslaughter and misconduct in public office following a Police Ombudsman investigation - allegations he always denied.

In October last year a jury was directed to return verdicts of ‘not guilty’ on both counts after the prosecution offered no further evidence at his trial.

Mrs McGowan’s legal challenge centred on the decision to lift the officer’s suspension until the charges were brought in 2016.

Her lawyers claimed he was reinstated while up to 14 other officers suspected of lesser offences remained suspended.

They argued that budget cuts within the PSNI could not properly explain the redeployment of Sgt McKenna to administrative duties at police headquarters.

Counsel for the Chief Constable pointed out how the custody sergeant was suspended again in May 2016 following the decision to prosecute.

He also stressed that the original suspension took place less than a month after the tragedy - and went beyond the Ombudsman’s stance that it would have been enough to reposition the officer.

Ruling on the case, Mr Justice McCloskey acknowledged the McKenna family’s objections and disappointment.

However, he said Sgt McKenna’s reinstatement and reassignment was a temporary measure, subjected to frequent reviews and, ultimately, terminated when the decision to prosecute was notified.

Dismissing the appeal, he added: “In reinstating and redeploying the custody sergeant during the period November 2014 to May 2016 the PSNI did not violate the procedural obligation enshrined in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”