More than 200 people have died either in police custody or following contact by Police Scotland since the nationwide force was formed in 2013, The Ferret has found.
The figures, obtained under freedom of information legislation, reveal 35 people died while in police custody, including three women and 171 died after having contact with the police – a total of 206 people.
The numbers were from January 2013 until December 2022 and have been increasing over the last decade.
Campaigners said deaths in custody were “shrouded in secrecy”. They claimed the newly obtained figures highlighted the need for proper transparency and scrutiny, not only so police were held to account but also so lessons could be learned.
Police Scotland said it exercised its “duty of care in all public interactions” and strived to improve its service to communities across the country.
Many of those who died were still young. At least seven people who died were under 30. Some were intoxicated or suffering from mental health crises, according to Fatal Accident Inquiries (FAI) reports analysed by The Ferret. We found several of those who died did not receive medical care despite this.
Names and ages of those who died
People who died in custody include Sheku Bayoh, who stopped breathing after being restrained in police custody in May 2015. The latest hearing of a public inquiry into his death restarted this week.
The figures also include Joseph Sneddon, who died in the custody of Fife division in 2022, aged 37 years old. Two others also died while in the custody of Fife police officers last year, but their identities have not been released.
Others who died include 29-year-old Mark Hutton, who died in a police cell in Dundee after being stopped driving his motorbike under the influence of drugs.
A further 171 deaths were recorded “following police contact”. This can include a wide range of scenarios from police being called in the days or hours in the lead to domestic murder to having apprehended someone who later died.
Names were not given in Police Scotland’s response to our freedom of information request but deaths after contact with the police identified by The Ferret include that of Caroline McLeod, who died of pneumonia after being taken unwell in the holding cells at Glasgow Sheriff Court in 2018.
A request was made for her to receive health care while at Glasgow Central police station but that was not followed up. Her father told The Ferret there was no accountability for her death.
Other deaths which occurred following police contact included that of a 33-year-old Ethiopian asylum seeker who jumped into the River Clyde and drowned after being chased by police.
A father’s story: ‘Someone should have been held accountable for my daughter’s death.’
Sunday, 30 September 2019 was a cold night. So when passers by found 41-year-old Caroline McLeod, disorientated and confused and wearing just her pyjamas and a coat, they were worried. According to a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) report from January 2022, they called the police who, finding Caroline had outstanding warrants for theft, fraud and failure to attend court, took her to the city centre police office, and held her in custody.
It was there that one officer noted she appeared to have used illicit drugs and should be seen by a healthcare professional. He wrote the words “medical alert” on her file and on the custody whiteboard. The alert appeared in the form of a flashing green symbol next to her name.
She was moved to two more police stations then transferred to Sheriff Court on the morning of 1 October. But Caroline did not see any health professionals. In the court holding cells that Monday afternoon her condition started to deteriorate. She was taken up to court in a wheelchair but taken back to the holding area because she was so unwell.
By the time she arrived in hospital just before 7pm she was diagnosed with sepsis, and later with pneumonia. On Tuesday she was put into an induced coma, and six days later her life support was switched off.
In the FAI, sheriff Valerie Mays found: “There were no precautions which could reasonably have been taken or had they been taken which might realistically have avoided Ms McLeod’s death. There were no defects in any system of working which contributed to Ms McLeod’s death.”
But to her father Robert McLeod, that seems unfathomable. He remembers Caroline as a clever girl, who loved reading when she was growing up. But by her twenties she was taking illicit drugs and ended up with an addiction to crack cocaine.
“I don’t care about that – I loved her, she was my daughter,” he told The Ferret. “But if you’re known to police as a drug addict then they dismiss your concerns out of hand.” He is convinced that if she had been seen by a medical professional as requested, that may have saved her life.
He says – from personal experience of being in custody – it’s “impossible” that the custody staff could have missed the flashing light that signalled his daughter required medical attention. “They just ignore those lights because people are always pressing their buzzers,” he says.
In the 18 years prior to her death Caroline had had 15 petty convictions, and Robert says she always called him – he’d take her magazine and leave money. He doesn’t believe officers who claimed she didn’t ask for anyone, especially as he lives a stone’s throw from the final police station where she was held.
They are adamant that Caroline did not ask for her dad that night. But Robert is angry that he didn’t get to question police about this at the inquiry into her death, and that neither he or his ex-wife had their voices heard. “I asked my lawyer if I would get questioned and he said no, because I wasn’t relevant. But how can that be? Do I not get a say? Caroline could have done a lot with her life if things had been different.”
Now – more than a year after the FAI – he says he’s given up getting closure. “The system will never change,” he says. “But someone should have been held accountable. To me, it’s a whitewash. The figures are shocking – they show it’s not just Caroline. Something needs to be done.”
Figures on deaths following police contact have risen substantially in recent years, more than doubling from 12 in 2015 to 27 in 2022.
Deborah Coles, executive director of the charity, Inquest, said:“The way the figures obfuscate serious systemic problems is of real concern.
“This reinforces the whole issue of deaths in police custody or following police contact being shrouded in secrecy. This doesn’t receive the scrutiny that it clearly needs.”
Inquest previously worked on the case of former Premier League footballer Dalian Atkinson who died in August 2016, following the excessive use of force by West Mercia Police.
Police officer Benjamin Monk was sentenced to eight years after being found guilty of Atkinson. His death was recorded in the English figures as a death following police custody.
Coles added: “The Home Office will always quote the in-custody figures, not the larger police contact ones, which catch everything. But it can be very difficult with these figures to really see what the key issues are.”
“My view is – and we have reported this to the United Nations – is that all deaths either in police custody or following police contact should be published and disaggregated so we have a far broader picture.”
Pauline McNeill MSP, Scottish Labour’s justice spokesperson, said: “In order for people to have complete trust in Police Scotland, full transparency is required on serious issues such as the deaths of people held in custody.
“The figures should be clear and complete, and robust processes must be in place to ensure that grieving families feel supported and receive accountability during a traumatic time for them.”
But assistant chief constable Alan Speirs, of Police Scotland, said robust procedures were already in place.
“Each year, thousands of people with a range of complex physical, mental and social issues have contact with police. It is therefore vital that any death following police contact is recorded and reviewed appropriately,” he added.
“This enables us to ensure that we did everything possible to safeguard that person. We have a duty of care in all public interactions and we continually strive to improve how we serve our communities.
The figures in full
Cover image – and additional image – thanks to Robert McLeod