Singapore CNB says internal probe finds teen who took life after facing drug charges treated ‘professionally, fairly’

An internal investigation by CNB found, among other things, that the teenager was checked by doctors on the two occasions he was in police custody, and they raised no matters of concern about his condition. — iStock pic via TODAY
An internal investigation by CNB found, among other things, that the teenager was checked by doctors on the two occasions he was in police custody, and they raised no matters of concern about his condition. — iStock pic via TODAY

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SINGAPORE, Oct 24 — A 17-year-old accused of drug trafficking who later committed suicide was “treated professionally and fairly” by anti-narcotics officers, while doctors who checked him on the two occasions that he was in lock-up found no issues of concern, a Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) internal investigation has found.

In releasing a summary of the findings on Friday (Oct 22), CNB also said the internal probe had concluded that there had been “no undue delay in the investigation and prosecutorial process”.

The youth was found to have been “coherent and articulate in his responses throughout the video-recorded interviews”.

“Throughout their interactions with Justin, CNB officers exercised sensitivity and endeavoured to release him on bail as soon as possible,” said CNB.

“No physical force, nor any abrasive language, were used at any time while he was in CNB’s custody.”

When contacted by TODAY for her response to the findings, the teenager’s mother, Ms Cecilia Ow, questioned why the investigation was done internally by CNB and not by an independent entity.

She also asked why her son was not eligible for an adult to accompany him to the interview, given he had mental health issues.

The teenager, who had not previously been named in full by the authorities, was identified by CNB as Justin Lee. He was arrested in February, and last interviewed by CNB on June 23. Nearly three months later, on Sept 16, he took his own life.

Ms Ow had written a letter to Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam seeking a review of law enforcement procedures in juvenile cases, and had also posted the letter onto social media on Oct 12.

She had alleged in the letter that he was interrogated in an “abrasive manner” during his arrest, among other complaints.

In response, CNB had said in a statement earlier this month that a full investigation into the circumstances of her son’s arrest was under way and would be shared with her and also made public.

Its statement on Friday, CNB noted that the police are separately looking into Justin’s death following his fall from height on Sept 16.

Toxicology tests indicated that there were traces of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which is a Class A controlled drug listed under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and Nitrazepam detected in his urine and blood, said CNB.

“These results and findings will be submitted at the Coroner’s Inquiry.”

No physical force or abusive language used: CNB

Ms Ow had said in her letter to Mr Shanmugam that six to nine CNB officers had chased after her son during the arrest, handcuffed him and took him to their home in order to raid his room.

The officers then took Justin to a police station in Bedok where he was interrogated “in an abrasive manner (such that) vulgarities were used”.

CNB said on Friday that it had conducted investigations in January 2021 into a suspect who had openly advertised the sale of LSD on a messaging app.

When the suspect, later ascertained to be Justin, was arrested on Feb 3, he did not put up any struggle.

“The officers held on to him while he was handcuffed, and escorted to various locations in the course of investigations,” CNB said. “This is a standard operating procedure in order to prevent escape or self-harm.”

The bureau added that there was no unreasonable use of force on him throughout his custody.

As for why nine officers were deployed for a follow-up search at his home after his arrest, CNB said that the number of officers deployed takes into account various factors.

“There is a need for operational flexibility in the event that there were more suspects and arrests to be made, or if any follow-up operations needed to be immediately conducted.”

After Justin was transferred to the Central Police Divisional Headquarters on Feb 4, he was examined by a lock-up medical doctor whose report concluded that Justin was well and that “the physical examination was unremarkable”.

“No physical force, nor any abrasive language, were used at any time while he was in CNB’s custody.”

“When Justin was released from the lock-up, he signed to acknowledge that he had no complaints,” said CNB.

“Justin was not mistreated in any way.”

Allowed to speak to mother

Ms Ow said in her letter that during the course of his custody, he was not allowed to contact her.

CNB said that arrested persons under investigations are not allowed to speak to their next-of-kin on the details of the case, but are allowed to converse on general matters.

However, it added that Justin spoke to his mother after the search of his residence on the night of Feb 3 after his arrest, and Ms Ow had also spoken to him about his eczema medication when he could not locate it.

CNB added that Justin made a call to Ms Ow in the evening of Feb 4, hours before he was released on bail.

Ms Ow also alleged that when her son returned to the CNB headquarters on June 23 to be served with charges, she was unable to contact Justin for four to five hours before he was released at 8pm the same day.

CNB said that the duration of interviews and serving of charges varies from case to case, and “it is not possible to provide an estimate to next-of-kins on the duration required”.

Personal belongings like mobile devices are also not permitted during the lock up to “prevent unauthorised communication with others which may jeopardise the investigation, escape by the arrested subject, or injury to self or others”, CNB said.

They also added that for “young suspects” under investigations that are not capital cases, CNB will ensure that they are released from bail “as soon as possible”.

Justin was also released on bail after the charges were served to him in June “in view of his age”.

As drug-related offences attract heavy penalties and there is a high flight risk, subjects charged with drug-related offences will normally not be released on bail, but will instead be escorted to court for prosecution the next day, CNB said.

“However, in view of his age, CNB released Justin on bail after serving the charges on him, and allowed him to report to court the next day,” CNB said, adding that when he was released on the night of June 23, he signed to acknowledge that he had no complaints.

Water, meals were provided, no restrictions on movement inside cell

Ms Ow also said in her letter that her son was held in “under less than ideal conditions” during his custody and that he was even denied water.

She alleged that during his time in custody on June 23, Justin was prohibited from doing push-ups to warm his body despite being in a “frigid cell”.

CNB said investigations had also shown no mistreatment during the time Justin was in lock-up, with CCTV footage showing he had been issued with a blanket during his lock-up on Feb 4.

For both lock-ups on Feb 4 and June 23, he was given his meals, including drinks, during his custody.

“During the admission process, he was also informed of his rights to request for these items if he wanted to,” said CNB.

It added that during both his lock-ups, Justin was not denied water.

“All drug suspects are given ample access to water in order to be able to provide their urine specimen for drug tests to be conducted,” said CNB.

“This is contrary to the allegation that he was denied water.”

CCTV footage also showed that on Feb 4, Justin was seen doing some stretching and planking position while he was in the lock-up.

“He was not stopped by officers manning the lock-up since he was not causing any disturbance,” said CNB.

“He was also observed to have walked around the cell and chatted with other persons-in-custody at different periods.”

According to CCTV footage on June 23, there were no instances of him trying to do push-ups, nor were there any restrictions imposed on him from moving about in the cell.

“This is contrary to allegations that he was not allowed to do pushups to keep himself warm,” said CNB.

No undue delay in probe

Ms Ow had alleged in her letter that her son was not accompanied by an “Appropriate Adult” despite his mental health issues and that no attempts were also made to confirm Justin’s mental health issues.

She added that after his encounter with the CNB officers, Justin “became a different person” and his psychologist said he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Appropriate Adult Scheme is available for suspects below 16 years old and for mentally vulnerable persons, where an independent and trained adult may accompany him during the interview.

CNB noted that Justin was aged 17 at the time of his arrest.

He had also mentioned to the CNB investigation officer that he was having depression and had previously been diagnosed by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for it.

CNB proceeded with the interviews, considering that Justin was “composed and coherent during the interviews, and was able to logically articulate the flow of events, including sharing about his research on drugs and his trafficking modus operandi”.

CNB added that he had sought clarifications when he wanted to make amendments, and was “observed not to show signs of distress during the interviews”.

The CNB officer had also seen his medical report from IMH, which stated among other things that he was diagnosed with dysthymia — a form of depression — and had been seeing a psychologist regularly.

CNB said Justin was referred to medical doctors due to his own declaration of having eczema, and mild depression and there were no allegations of assault in subsequent medical reports issued and email clarifications with the doctors.

The medical report for the medical examination on June 23 conducted after the serving of charges also stated that “(t)he patient was stable with no acute issues at the time of consultation. The patient was not experiencing any hallucinations. He did not have any self-harm or suicidal thoughts and did not report feeling unwell”.

Ms Ow also alleged that Justin had experienced additional stress from waiting “indefinitely” for an outcome of his case.

CNB said that Justin’s case was “investigated within a reasonable period, and he was released from custody without delay”.

Regarding the allegations that the court had postponed the case a few times which added more stress to Justin, CNB said that the prosecution was ready to take the plea on June 24, when Justin was charged in court.

“It was the defence counsel representing Justin who had requested to adjourn the court mentions four times,” said CNB.

This occurred first from June 24 to July 22, then to August 19, Sept 9 and finally to Sept 23.

Psychological support provided to Ms Ow

Ms Ow also said in her letter that CNB officials had not contacted her when she reached out on Sept 20, but only from Sept 21 after multiple calls.

CNB said that it has been engaging Ms Ow since Sept 20, with two separate calls on Sept 20 and 21 by its officers, ensuring her that the matter would be investigated.

There were also visits by a CNB senior official to her home and at the Ang Mo Kio Police Divisional Headquarters on Sept 30 and Oct 8 respectively.

During the visits, she was advised about the investigations, and Justin’s belongings were returned to her, CNB said.

It added that the bureau had arranged for psychological support for her which she consented to on Sept 21, with a CNB psychologist speaking to her for an hour on Sept 22.

Ms Ow had said in a Facebook post on Oct 18 that she did not accept CNB’s offer for psychological support.

CNB added that the same psychologist was present on Sept 30 to check on her when the CNB official visited her home, but Ms Ow had stated through a family member that she did not wish to take up further psychological support.

“CNB understands that this is a difficult time for Ms Cecilia Ow and will continue to render assistance to her,” it said.

Ms Ow’s response

Speaking to TODAY over the phone on Friday after the release of the findings, Ms Ow said that an independent committee should have been convened to investigate the matter.

“The whole investigation by CNB is all based on internal reports, documents, CCTV footage and photos sourced internally,” she said, questioning how “unbiased and neutral” the investigation was.

“Why don’t they convene an independent committee of inquiry made up of lawyers, psychologists, educators, and law enforcers?”

She added that her son should have been under the Appropriate Adult Scheme as he has a mental health condition.

She said that her son had “always been articulate” and claimed that it would take a trained psychologist, and not a lock-in doctor, to assess his condition.

“Why couldn’t they err on the side of caution and offer to have a police psychologist sit with him through the interrogation?”

She also acknowledged that her son’s suicide had been influenced by “multiple factors” and is not saying that CNB is “truly responsible”, though she did not elaborate.

“He committed a crime, he’s guilty as charged and I am not saying he doesn’t deserve to be punished,” she said.

However, she maintained that the conditions surrounding his arrest had a part to play in the deterioration of his mental condition.

“Anyone who has been through an arrest experience is traumatised,” she said. “For someone with a preexisting mental health condition, (the trauma) is magnified manifold.”

She also does not believe that her son would have lied about his experience while in custody.

“These are incidents that were related from Justin to me or a family member, why would he want to lie about this?” — TODAY

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