Suicide victim police appeal
Published Date: 21 August 2008
By Claire Lewis
A WOMAN was found hanged at her Sheffield home two days after she was released from police custody despite telling officers she was suicidal.
Leanne Christina Whiteley, aged 21, of Water Slacks Walk, Woodhouse, was discovered hanged from a bedroom door in her flat after officers released her from a city police station despite knowing she had recently attempted to kill herself.
She was arrested in connection with abusive telephone calls she made to one of her sisters, Gemma, after a fall out.
A Sheffield inquest into her death revealed she told custody supervisor Inspector Paul Catley she was suffering from depression, was taking anti-depressants and had recently attempted to jump from a bridge.
And when she was sent home later that day she had also told Sgt Steven Short she was suicidal.
But she was allowed home without speaking to any health professionals and without being offered any help or being referred to any agencies.
The decision breached South Yorkshire Police rules, which state anyone assessed as vulnerable should be seen by a medic.
Two weeks before she died police were called to a bridge over a dual carriageway after a motorist saw Leanne leaning over.
She told a police officer she was depressed because she was struggling to get pregnant and was allowed to make her own way home.
Police records also revealed two weeks before she was found in her pyjamas on another bridge.
She ran away from police and was later arrested for being drunk and disorderly and was served with a fixed penalty notice for her behaviour and again allowed home.
And the night before she died police were told she had run away from home and was threatening to kill herself after a row with her boyfriend.
When officers found her they said she was drunk but understood what was happening and refused to go to hospital with paramedics.
PC Sarah Ashton, who dealt with her that night, said her behaviour gave officers no reason to detain her under the Mental Health Act.
She said if she had known about previous suicide attempts she and her colleague would still have allowed her to go home.
Coroner Christopher Dorries, who recorded a verdict Miss Whiteley killed herself, said he plans to write to Chief Constable Med Hughes detailing the circumstances surrounding the death.
"Whatever decisions were made, even if they might be challenged with hindsight, it is several stops further on to say that Miss Whiteley's death was caused by what went before or even that it would have been prevented if different decisions had been taken."
He said it was "unlikely in the extreme" she would have been detained under the Mental Health Act if she had been assessed by medics each time police officers had contact with her.
"I am not at all sure that even in a perfect world she could have been offered treatment that she would have found acceptable, which absolutely prevented the events of October 10 still happening."
He said the last time officers spoke to Miss Whiteley a few hours before her death they did all they could for her – but lessons could still be learned.
"It is my intention to write to the Chief Constable to draw his attention to the circumstances. He might then consider what lessons can be learnt from this case which might assist in the future," he added.
Nicholas Long, Commissioner for the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which investigated the circumstances surrounding the death said: "The officers who dealt with her on several occasions leading up to her death were placed in a difficult situation. Police officers are not health care professionals and they had to make judgement calls with regard to each situation they encountered.
"In hindsight, it is almost certainly the case that opportunities for intervention were missed which might have led to Ms Whiteley receiving medical assistance. However, it is obvious Ms Whiteley's thoughts of self harm had escalated in the months prior to her death and it can never be said whether such intervention would have changed or stopped the tragic course of events."
The report concluded the two officers who saw Miss Whiteley just hours before she died "acted appropriately" when they let her go home despite knowing she had just made threats to kill herself.
But its report said the officers had not been provided with information from police computer systems which would have alerted them to previous suicide attempts and her history of self harming and recommends they receive as much information as possible in future.
A South Yorkshire Police spokesman said: "Officers are placed in difficult positions in terms of assessing people's health and well being. In this case the report concluded that the officers who attended prior to her death had acted appropriately.
"We accept the IPCC's findings and comments and are acting upon them."