Police involvement in unexpected sudden young death

Alexander EdwardsAs a serving Police Officer I have been asked by Alison Cox of CRY to produce a short guide of what to expect when a sudden death occurs in relation particularly to young victims and what to expect in relation to enquiries by various authorities. This is by no means an in depth technical study nor will it necessarily deal with specifics as procedures will obviously differ from place to place.

Sudden death at any time but particularly with regard to the young is probably the most traumatic thing that anyone will have dealings with. Not only are relatives subjected to the most appalling psychological stress from what has occurred but added to this are strains placed upon them by dealing with the various Authorities they will come into contact with and especially any Police enquiries.

Any sudden death and especially that of a child will be subject to investigation of some form or other. This may be through the Coroner’s Districts or usually, in the case of a child, by the Police who will conduct enquiries into the matter.

The reason for Police involvement is obvious and is in case of suspicious circumstances. It may seem that parents are being automatically interrogated as if they are suspect murderers and subjected to the fear that they are going to be carted off to jail and locked up.

Questions are obviously asked to establish the facts surrounding what has occurred and usually this information goes to assist the pathologist and finally the Coroner in inquiring into the cause of death through the means of an Inquest.

Usually the enquiries are conducted by a uniformed officer, and while it may seem that their manner may not be all that could be hoped for, it must be remembered that that officer probably is young in service and has no more wish to be there than the family to deal with him or her. Usually the dealings will be fairly straightforward but could involve the attendance of a supervisor in the form of a sergeant and possibly a Scene of Crime Officer (SOCO) Photographer.

While to the victim’s family this is a huge intrusion and investigation it is not usually indicative of being the start of a murder enquiry. If there are suspicious circumstances it will soon become blatantly obvious as the first things that would happen would be that the scene would be sealed, everybody removed from the premises, and a log would be kept of comings and goings. Police Officers would start to don protective paper suits and there would be a massive Police presence and involvement.

If this is not occurring the likelihood is that the family is not about to be taken away and locked up although this will still be a fear while persons are still in a state of shock and numb as to what is actually happening to them.

Usually, unless the deceased has been under direct medical treatment, a post mortem examination will be conducted to establish a cause of death. This is because a death cannot be certified unless a medical practitioner has had direct dealings and is aware of what has transpired.

Occasionally, especially in young children the post mortem will be inconclusive. This is by no means unusual in dealing with the conditions lumped under the heading of Sudden Death Syndrome. Again it does not mean that anyone is going to be immediately arrested and locked up. It probably means that the cause of death is not obvious and cannot immediately be established. Further tests may be required.

Something that should not be overlooked is the previous medical treatment of the deceased and any relevant medical history or observations. This is vital, especially if the records were not local, as they may not be automatically available to the Pathologist conducting the post mortem. A history of unexplained happenings or the connection with certain events that have occurred in the past may be vital in reaching certain conclusions.

Also one should be guided by any dealings with local Coroner’s Officers. They are usually extremely approachable and can usually clear up any fears with the answering of a few simple questions. Do not be afraid to ring them and ask. They are the experts and can explain the whole system.

Coroner’s Inquests, while they are a court of law, are what the title implies – an official Inquiry into an unexplained death in an attempt to establish the facts. They are not places where persons will be questioned as if they are at a Crown Court. Questioning is only allowed to establish fact, not to find a person guilty or not guilty of an offence.

Fear of authority and the unknown is only natural especially as I have already stated when one is in a state of shock and quite unable to function correctly as a normal human being. All of us who deal with this kind of situation are well aware of this and will deal with the matter as delicately as possible. However, the questions do have to be asked and it must be remembered that they are sometimes also for the good as some of these conditions are hereditary and it may prevent further tragedy in the future.

I hope that this short article goes some way to assist with giving an insight into the world of officialdom and helps dispel fear that will naturally occur in situations that I am all too familiar with.

Peter Edwards is an Accident Investigation Officer with the Gloucestershire Constabulary, dealing with the specialist investigation of serious and fatal road traffic accidents, a post he has held for the past 20 years. He has 28 years service in the Force and has been a Traffic Officer for 24 years. As a result of his work he has a wide experience of dealings with various Coroner’s Districts and inquests. His wife, Rachel, is the CRY representative for Gloucestershire. In June 1997, their son Alexander, who was 12 years of age, collapsed during a cricket match at school and died a week later as a result of dilated cardiomyopathy.