The three police officers before the courts in connection with the death of a man in custody in Taranaki are believed to be the first to be charged with either manslaughter or murder following an on-duty incident.

The three officers appeared in the New Plymouth District Court this morning charged with manslaughter following the death of a 55-year-old man at the Hawera police station in the early hours of June 1, 2019.

The charges allege that the officers were grossly negligent in their duty of care to the victim and that this negligence was a causal factor in his death.

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The dead man's name has previously been suppressed by the coroner.

All three police officers also have name suppression.

Police believe they are the first to be accused of being criminally culpable of the death of a person while on duty.

Police said earlier today that the decision to charge the officers came after a thorough investigation and consideration of legal advice from the New Plymouth Crown Solicitor and a Queen's Counsel.

"The victim's family has been advised of the police decision to lay charges," a statement said.

"All three officers have been stood down from their duties and an employment process will follow in due course.

"As the matter is before the courts, police cannot provide any further details or comments about the case."

The officers are being supported by the Police Association.

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President Chris Cahill said as members of the association, they were entitled to legal and welfare support.

The charges relate to the death of a 55-year-old man at the Hawera Police Station in the early hours of June 1, 2019. Photo / File
The charges relate to the death of a 55-year-old man at the Hawera Police Station in the early hours of June 1, 2019. Photo / File

Cahill would not be drawn on the specifics, but did say it was "important to note that there was absolutely no suggestion that the death was the result of any physical or violent confrontation between the officers and the deceased".

"Any death of a person in police custody is a tragic situation for the family of the deceased and in this case, for the officers involved and their families," he said

"It is now a matter for the court, and we will leave the court to do its work.

"Any speculation prior to the full facts of this situation being disclosed in court would do a disservice to the deceased and his family, and the police officers involved."

A spokesperson for the Independent Police Conduct Authority said the matter had been subject to a full inquiry.

"We have independently investigated this matter and have nearly finalised our report," said the spokesperson.

"However, the matter is now before the Court and we will have no further comment to make until the conclusion of Court proceedings."

Police Minister Stuart Nash issued a statement on the charges but could not say much more than what the organisation had previously released.

"Any incident involving a loss of life in police custody is taken very seriously," he said.

"The charges today reflect the gravity of the circumstances.

"This will be a difficult time for the victim's family and the wider police organisation. I extend my sympathies to the man's family.

"It is also important to acknowledge the professional work by a police investigation team to get to this point.

"This has been a challenging case to work on and today's court appearance is the result of detailed work behind the scenes."

Cell death followed family harm incident

The Herald reported that police were called to a family harm incident in Hawera about 11.30pm on May 31 last year and arrested a drunk man for assault.

He was taken to Hawera police station.

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During a routine cell check the 55-year-old man was found unresponsive, police said at the time.

A volunteer fire crew was called to assist the ambulance at the police station about 2.30am.

Police staff performed CPR until the ambulance arrived.

Paramedics tried to resuscitate him for more than 30 minutes before he was pronounced dead.

Acting Central District Commander Inspector Chris de Wattignar said at the time it was a very sad time for all involved.

"We extend our deepest sympathies to the family. Police staff make every effort to ensure the safety of those in police custody."

The death was referred to the Independent Police Conduct Authority and WorkSafe.