By One News. This story is republished with permission under Kaniva News arrangement with TVNZ
The wheels of justice can sometimes grind slowly.
It’s been more than two years since Alofa Ngata’s son, Alo, died controversially while wearing a spit hood in police custody.
The family still don’t have all the answers.
This week, the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) finally released its report. It details how “police failed in their duty of care to Alo Ngata after his arrest”.
“Police have an obligation to look after people in custody. And it is an obligation on them that doesn’t ever shift,” judge Colin Doherty, chair of the IPCA, told TVNZ1’s Sunday.
“In this case, we don’t think that they did [fulfil that obligation].”
In June 2018, Alo Ngata was taken into police custody after randomly and violently attacking 76-year-old Mike Reilly in central Auckland.
A witness described what happened: “He landed on the ground and started stomping on his head.”
Police pepper-sprayed and tasered Alo before forcing him to the ground.
Alo was likely suffering a medical emergency due to the high levels of methamphetamine in his system.
The witness says Alo was spitting at the police officers.
“They ended up putting one of those [a spit hood] on him but when they had him on the ground, it was over his whole face.”
The spit hood is a controversial restraining device which has been linked with deaths in custody overseas.
The police’s own policy says the spit hood should only cover the nose and mouth, but it had been pulled up over Alo’s entire face, including his eyes.
“We found that it wasn’t applied correctly,” Mr Doherty says.
The IPCA found this would have serious consequences when he was taken to police cells.
“His face couldn’t be seen. So the sorts of signs of distress that are evident in a person’s eyes or his face, could not be recognised by police,” Mr Doherty says.
Alofa Ngata, Alo’s mother, says it’s unacceptable.
“It doesn’t make sense, it’s more like putting a whole wrap-up, cover the head. It’s just a killer.”
The IPCA interviewed 19 police officers during their investigation. Concerningly, none of them noticed the spit hood was not on correctly.
Mr Doherty says they should have realised it was wrong.
“Why they didn’t may well be a matter of training, or just inadvertence. And we found that in this case no one really took proper notice.”
It’s left Ms Ngata in disbelief.
“Are they not trained, or what, is that how they were trained to do?” she says.
“That can’t be true.”
“They ought not to be using it at all if they don’t know how to use it properly,” Mr Doherty says.
The police have always insisted that Alo continued to struggle violently when he arrived at the cells, restrained and hooded.
Having seen the footage, Mr Doherty says he didn’t see that.
“My own observation looking at it, is that he was unresponsive.”
The coroner has suppressed the CCTV footage but the pathologist has watched it, and he too said Alo could’ve been unconscious before he even entered the cell.
Ms Ngata has seen it too and says the police are wrong.
“They say whatever they want to say, but that was the truth, we saw it, he was not moving.”
WAS ALO NGATA IN MEDICAL DISTRESS?
Disturbingly, the IPCA says at no time during this entire ordeal did any of the police officers check his condition.
“They were turning him onto his left and then his right side to carry out their processes. It didn’t seem to us that that had anything to do with his welfare,” Mr Doherty says.
“No one seems to have looked at his face, shifted the spit hood and looked at those signs there.”
They didn’t check his pulse or heart rate, he says.
“To me it was so painful and hurtful to see your own son being treated like that,” Ms Ngata says.
A spit hood was covering Alo Ngata’s entire face and it remained on when he was left alone and unresponsive in the cell.
Mr Doherty says it should’ve been removed.
“It’s not acceptable to do, to leave someone like that.”
Just as the officers left the cell, one of them suggested to the supervisor, named as Officer K, that the spit hood should be removed.
“But she said no, it should remain as it was,” Mr Doherty says.
It was a mistake “on a number of levels”, he says.
“If it had been taken off they may well have observed that there was distress.”
The IPCA also found police weren’t as quick as they could have been in starting medical treatment when they realised something was wrong.
“They left Mr Ngata in the cell,” Mr Doherty says.
“Because he’d been pepper sprayed and tasered, they ought to have been constantly monitoring him, that’s part of police policy.
“And although someone was said to have been allocated to do that, that did not happen.”
Alone, facedown in that cell, with the spit hood left over his head, Alo Ngata was dying.
“His hands began to turn blue and that was observed by someone outside the unit monitoring on the television monitor,” Mr Doherty says.
“Even then when they recognised something was up, it took them a minute or two to get in there.
“It is appalling. It’s sad and it’s something that should not have happened, in the sense that they should have been in there earlier.
“I think the public, and any right thinking person, would expect there to be some instant action.”
“There’s always two parts of me that tells me, ‘Alofa, they’re just doing their job’… but not on my son’s case,” Ms Ngata says.
“The more that I think about it, like right at this point, it felt that… I have been calm, calm for two years.”
COULD ALO NGATA’S DEATH HAVE BEEN PREVENTED?
In 2014, 20-year-old Sentry Taitoko also died in police custody.
At the time, police said: “What I would say is that we have very highly trained staff down in the custody area.”
But an IPCA report found that wasn’t the case.
“Police sometimes fail to fulfil their duty of care simply because they do not have the necessary expertise and training,” Sir David Carruthers said in 2015.
Because of the death of Sentry, the IPCA made recommendations to police in 2015 to introduce training for staff in custodial facilities nationwide.
Police accepted the findings, but never put them in place.
It’s now been five years since those recommendations. Mr Doherty calls the lack of progress “disappointing”.
“There has been a training programme which has been applied in some places, but not rolled out nationally, which was what our recommendation was, and what was accepted by, police,” he says.
“And I’m of the view that if that had happened here, we may not be in this situation.”
Police had agreed to speak to Sunday on Friday to address the IPCA’s findings. but they pulled out at the last minute.
They did, however, produce a media statement where they acknowledge the death of Alo Ngata as a tragic event, and agree their supervisor, Officer K, should’ve focused attention on the spit hood and constant monitoring of Alo’s condition.
But they do emphasise their officers are not criminally culpable because the pathologist could not determine whether the spit hood had caused Alo’s death.
No officers have been disciplined.
“You know it’s not gonna bring your son back, what has happened has already happened,” Ms Ngata says.
“But someone should be held accountable.
“What do I want? It’s justice.”
The death of Alo Ngata is still the subject of an ongoing coronial inquiry.