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Failure to investigate death of a disabled man in police custody leads to reforms

Jasinskis v. Latvia  | 2010

Failure to investigate death of a disabled man in police custody leads to reforms

Background

Valdis Jasinskis was deaf and mute. He was outside a student party when he was pushed and fell down some stairs. When police attended the scene they were told of his disability, that he had lost consciousness after hitting his head against the ground and that an ambulance was on its way.

However, the police took Mr Jasinskis to a police station. Believing him to be drunk, they put him in a sobering-up cell. Mr Jasinskis knocked on the doors and walls of his cell for some time before going to sleep. However, he could not communicate with police officers because none of them understood sign language and they had taken his notepad away.

Seven hours after Mr Jasinskis had been taken into custody, officers tried but failed to wake him up. Another seven hours later, an ambulance was called to bring him to hospital – but the crew refused to take him, as they thought he was “faking” his condition.

Valdis Jasinskis was eventually taken to hospital a number of hours later, but died shortly afterwards.

Valdis’ father Aleksandrs Jasinskis took the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

Despite being told about Mr Jasinskis’ fall and his disability, the police had not called for medical attention when he was first detained, or arranged for a way for him to communicate with them. They had also let seven hours pass between failing to revive him and calling an ambulance. In these circumstances, police officers had failed in their duty to safeguard Valdis Jasinskis’ life whilst he was in their care.

The authorities also failed to properly investigate the incident. The initial inquiry was repeatedly passed between different authorities, resulting in significant delays. It was eventually carried out by the same police department which had detained Mr Jasinskis, meaning that it had not been independent.

Though an investigation had later been carried out by an independent bureau, it only started 18 months after the incident – meaning that witnesses’ memories had faded, the scenes could not be examined and the pathologist could not be questioned. Moreover, no effort was made to investigate particular shortcomings in the police officers’ actions.

In these circumstances, the court ruled that Mr Jasinskis’right to life had been violated.

Follow-up

The Latvian authorities have taken a number of steps to make sure that police actions can be effectively and independently investigated.

  • In 2010 and 2011 the Prosecutor General issued decrees strengthening the prosecutorial supervision over alleged offences by police officers.
  • In 2011 a booklet on the complaint mechanism concerning actions or omissions of the police officers was published by the State Police in cooperation with NGOs.
  • In 2012 the Cabinet of Ministers decided to institutionally separate the Internal Security Office from the State Police and transfer it under the supervision of the Minister of the Interior. This meant greater independence for investigations into police actions.  

Reforms in this area are still being monitored by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.