A coroner has criticised aspects of a police restraint operation on a Belfast DJ who later died in hospital but said the force used by officers was not excessive.
Gerard McMahon, from the Short Strand area of Belfast, died in hospital on September 8 2016.
Hours earlier the 36-year-old music lover and motor mechanic had suffered a cardiac arrest as he struggled with a number of police officers in an altercation on the city’s Great Victoria Street.
Delivering inquest findings in Belfast Coroner’s Court, coroner Joe McCrisken said Mr McMahon had been experiencing an acute behavioural disturbance (ABD) on the night, brought on by the consumption of cocaine and alcohol.
He highlighted failings in police training around the symptoms and risks associated with ABD and also expressed concern that officers did not communicate effectively as they tried to restrain Mr McMahon on the ground.
Mr McCrisken also said one officer’s decision to deploy CS spray at close quarters during the incident was not justified.
“While the restraint on the ground was extremely poor, I am satisfied that the officers were justified in using a degree of force to restrain Mr McMahon,” he said.
The coroner added: “The force the officers used was not excessive.”
Mr McCrisken said while he considered the restraint a factor in Mr McMahon’s death he said the DJ might have died even if he had not come into contact with police on the night in question, noting that he was already “very unwell” when officers encountered him.
The coroner said if officers had not used force and allowed Mr McMahon to flee the scene he could have posed “a very real risk to himself or road users”.
“I do not underestimate how difficult it must have been to keep Mr McMahon under what the officers thought was some degree of control but these efforts were made more difficult by a staggering and inexplicable lack of communication between the officers during the restraint,” he said.
Mr McCrisken said the officers involved had not had up-to-date training on such restraint incidents at the time of the event and said they had not been given enough information about ABD.
He said he was not overly criticising the Police Service of Northern Ireland on that issue, highlighting that levels of understanding about ABD and its risks across police forces were not as advanced in 2016 as they are in 2021.
Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman investigated the circumstances of the restraint incident and an evidence file was passed to prosecutors.
Last year, the Public Prosecution Service directed that no prosecution be taken against any of the officers involved.
The events on Great Victoria Street unfolded after Mr McMahon had already been engaged in an extended period of erratic and at times violent behaviour in other parts of the city centre, having been earlier at a nightclub.
He had also been engaged in a physical altercation with security staff at the nightclub having been accused of exposing himself on the dancefloor.
Police had been called to one incident involving Mr McMahon earlier in the morning near Belfast City Hall but he had left the scene by the time officers arrived.
The coroner criticised emergency service call handlers for not seeking access to CCTV footage of Mr McMahon.
He said such footage could have flagged the erratic behaviour in advance of the officers’ engagement with him later on Great Victoria Street.
Mr McCrisken used his verdict to warn of an escalating cocaine abuse problem in Northern Ireland.
He said deaths had soared from three in 2016 to 37 in 2019.
“This is a frightening increase in deaths over a short period of time and indicates that in Northern Ireland we now have a significant cocaine problem almost on par with our heroin problem,” he said.
The coroner said while there was uncertainty over some of the contributory factors in the death, he added: “I can be certain on one thing – if Mr McMahon had not ingested cocaine on September 8 he would in all likelihood have come home from his night out.”
Mr McCrisken said the authorities faced an ongoing challenge to ensure proper support was offered to those abusing cocaine while deterring its recreational use.
Mr McMahon’s mother, Ella McMahon, said she missed her son terribly.
“To think that this could have been avoided is heart-breaking and I would like people out there to recognise that, to say if you have problems and are in trouble.”
She added: “This should not have happened.”
She said she had learned a lot about how her son died during the inquest.
“The pieces are in place, my heart is not in place, my heart is broken.”
She said her son had been trying to escape from his demons.
“I dearly hope that police are listening to this today and listening to me that has lost a son.”
She added: “Lessons have to be learned or there is going to be another family left like ourselves.”