The death of a North East man in custody helped shape a damning report about the police watchdog.
Published yesterday, the Independent Police Complaints Commission was slammed for its lack of “empathy, sensitivity and compassion” when investigating these cases.
The report detailed how the families of some victims “felt that they and those who had died were wrongly characterised or unfairly judged”.
All this was nothing new to Tracey McCourt of Seaham, County Durham.
What happened to her brother-in-law, Lenny McCourt, contributed to the report.
He was arrested in September, 2010 at his home in Seaham for being drunk and disorderly.
Mr McCourt, who was 6ft 3in and weighed 17-and-a-half stones, was pepper-sprayed twice, handcuffed and placed face down in a police van before being taken to Peterlee police station eight miles away. He died of a heart attack en route and the IPCC was called in to investigate.
Mrs McCourt said: “At first the IPCC talked a very good talk but after the first few weeks there was no trust, no compassion or sincerity.”
She said just as bad was the fact their concerns about issues central to the case weren’t taken seriously.
“We believed the van was key from the very beginning because it was so small but they said it wasn’t relevant.
“My husband, Gene, had to go to Durham police headquarters and climb into the back of the van his brother died in to prove it was too small.
“Durham police later changed all the vans in its fleet.”
For months the family felt the IPCC were, at best, reluctant to release information to them which had been readily available to the three officers it was supposed to be investigating.
She also revealed it took three months to get hold of CCTV footage which showed officers standing idly round for minutes before trying to resuscitate Lenny.
Police claimed the journey from the victim’s home to the station took eight minutes. When Mrs McCourt and her husband tested this, they drove the same route in 17 minutes, something that was later verified.
“Why didn’t the IPCC do this?” she asked.
In November 2012 a three-week inquest into Lenny’s death decided he died of a heart attack in a cramped cage at the back of a police van.
The McCourt family were unable to obtain legal aid and so did not have any legal representation. Tracey was chosen to represent them as she had read all the case papers.
“Hundreds of pages of documents which the IPCC boiled down to just 58 pages!” she said.
At the inquest, Durham Police had their own barristers and the Police Federation – the police officer’s trade union – also supplied another. The coroner praised Mrs McCourt, a factory cleaner, for her cross-examining skills, saying she had missed her vocation as a lawyer.
“It was three weeks of hell,” she said. “I was so scared but had to do it for Lenny.”
Since 1990 there have 26 deaths in custody in the Northumbria force area and six involving Durham Constabulary, a number of which the charity INQUEST, which offers free advice to bereaved people facing an inquest, have been involved in.
Mrs McCourt described the damning IPCC report as “a long time coming”.
She added: “They need to look at all the processes. The main point is you’re dealing with a family which has lost someone at the hands of a public body in unexplained circumstances.
“You have to take their concerns on board. As a family we didn’t feel that happened.
“At least with this report it means that Lenny didn’t die in vain.”