23:59 GMT01 October 2020
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    In July, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) issued its annual report on deaths in police custody in the UK. In all, 23 individuals lost their lives during or after police custody in the 12 months to March 31 2018 - the second highest number on record, the highest in eleven years, and a 64 percent increase year-on-year.

    Three people died after being held in police cells, five were pronounced dead in hospital after being held in cells and becoming unwell, and nine passed away in hospital after falling ill at the scene of arrests.

    Of the 23, 17 had been subjected to the use of force or restraint "by the police or others" before their deaths, of which 11 were restrained while in custody. Black citizens were disproportionately represented in the figures, as were people with "mental health concerns" and "links to drugs and/or alcohol", as they have been every year since records began.

    While the IOPC is quick to stress the use of force "did not necessarily contribute to the deaths", its Director General Michael Lockwood found the figures extremely concerning, particularly in the context of "a trend of falling numbers" over the last decade.

    No Justice


    While undoubtedly shocking, for Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST, a charity supporting bereaved families of individuals who've died during or after contact with police, the report was depressingly predictable reading.

    She believes the findings merely serve to reinforce serious existing concerns about racial discrimination among the ranks of Britain's police, and again beg historic questions about how certain people come into contact with the criminal justice system and why.

    "It's evident there are stereotypical attitudes woven into police practice when it comes to dealing with certain situations. For example, some officers view black men as 'big and dangerous', with a tendency towards criminality and violence. Likewise, people with mental health issues can be viewed as 'mad, bad and hazardous.' This creates an almost exclusive emphasis on the risk posed by an individual to others, rather than considerations for their own welfare and safety — and it can and does lead to the disproportionate and sometimes fatal use of force," Deborah told Sputnik journalist Kit Klarenberg.

    In a sense though, this state of affairs isn't entirely the fault of police. As INQUEST has long-recorded, law enforcement are regularly and increasingly relied on by authorities to deal with incidents well outside their sphere of understanding, expertise or experience — and the public are actively advised to consider police the first resort in many situations when they don't seem an immediately obvious or proportionate way of resolving an issue. For instance, Deborah observes families of people with mental health problems are often told to call police rather than specially-trained emergency teams if problems arise.

    While a historic issue, Deborah believes government austerity policies, which have resulted in cuts to many front-line mental and physical health services, mean police contact with the vulnerable is more likely and common than ever. Thus, officers are frequently thrust into scenarios they don't understand or know how to control — and their reflex response is often to suppress any disturbance or threat with physical restraints, significantly raising the risk of encounters turning lethal.

    If the British state were to invest resources in a public health rather than criminal justice response, Deborah suggests there'd "more likely than not" be a sizeable reduction in custody deaths.

    "It makes me incredibly frustrated to see the same issues repeating over and over. When someone dies in police custody, you can essentially write the narrative before any facts emerge. A disturbing number of people represented in the figures are individuals who needed support from health professionals but instead ended up in direct, dangerous and ultimately fatal contact with police. It breaks my heart to think they could be alive today if their cases had been considered public health matters rather than criminal justice concerns," Deborah told Sputnik.

    Official Unaccountability


    Over the course of its 37-year existence, INQUEST has extensively documented a systemic lack of accountability among police, and intense official unwillingness to investigate deaths in custody as crimes.

    Since 1990, 1668 people have lost their lives during or after contact with police — but ensuant trials are extremely rare, and yet to result in a single successful prosecution. Trials, much less convictions, aren't even certain in cases when inquests into deaths in police custody have returned ‘unlawful killing' verdicts — of ten such examples, a mere six have produced prosecutions. Officers have invariably been acquitted, or legal proceedings collapse, despite often overwhelming if not incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing.

    For instance, the death of Thomas Orchard in police custody is perhaps the "most horrific" Deborah has ever seen. One morning in October 2012, while he was in the grip of a schizophrenic episode, officers were called to Exeter city center due to his erratic behavior.

    He was subsequently arrested on suspicion of committing a public order offence, and taken into custody. While detained, Thomas was handcuffed, bound in leg restraints, and a thick padded strap fixed across his mouth and nose. The seven-inch wide Emergency Restraining Belt is designed to bind legs or arms, but was used to prevent him spitting at or biting officers — it also prevented him from breathing.

    Just over an hour after reaching the station, Thomas was found unconscious in his cell. He was eventually pronounced dead at hospital, after attempts to resuscitate him failed. The resultant post-mortem ruled his death was "related to asphyxiation".

    In March 2013, IOPC forebear the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) submitted a file of evidence on the case to the Crown Prosecution Service, but the body ruled there was insufficient evidence for the arresting officer to be charged with unlawful arrest or unnecessary use of force. Four months later, the IPCC again passed a file to the CPS, arguing serious criminal charges be brought against two custody detention staff, three police officers and a custody sergeant. The six were placed on restricted duties, but weren't prosecuted or even suspended.

    It wasn't until December 2014 a police sergeant and two custody detention officers involved would be charged with manslaughter, and misconduct in public office. While the CPS believed there to be a "realistic prospect of conviction", the ensuing trial was terminated in its eleventh week in March 2016 by the presiding judge. "I have decided this trial cannot continue. I appreciate this may be a disappointment," he said, "given there may be a retrial we cannot say any more."

    A retrial was duly convened January 2017 — but within two months, the trio were acquitted.

    "It's very, very difficult to reconcile the outcome of the trial with the evidence heard. Thomas' case, as with so many others, starkly underlines just how insulated from the law police are, and the difficulty of holding authorities to account. It's inconceivable if civilians had done the same things as officers they wouldn't be convicted. There's a number of different issues at work here — most significantly, disproportionately high evidentiary thresholds, and a culture of closing ranks among police. It's a brave officer indeed who speaks out against their colleagues," Deborah told Sputnik.

    Closing Ranks


    Another palpable demonstration of these toxic interlinked phenomena is the tragic case of Christopher Alder, a former British Army paratrooper who'd served in the Falklands War and Northern Ireland.

    On the evening of March 31 1998, Christopher was the victim of a vicious assault outside a Hull nightclub, and suffered head injures. Taken to hospital, he was dazed, confused, and "troublesome" towards staff, refusing to cooperate with medics. He was eventually arrested in the early hours of the following morning to prevent a breach of the peace, and taken into custody.

    Upon arrival at the police station, Christopher was "partially dragged, partially carried" unconscious from the police vehicle to the station's custody suite, where he was left face-down on the floor. A pool of blood quickly formed around his mouth — a development noticed by officers present, although no attempt was made to examine him.

    In subsequent conversations caught by CCTV, officers dismiss Christopher's state as "acting" and "a show", make racist comments and laugh and joke together, all the while ignoring gurgling sounds emanating from his mouth. One police sergeant present, John Dunn, later alleged he'd ignored the noises because he thought Christopher was deliberately blowing through the blood to "upset" officers.

    After a few minutes, Christopher's handcuffs were removed — while he remained unmoving, no attempts were made to examine or rouse him. Officers then discussed what offences he should be charged with, and whether there was any justification for holding him. After a few minutes, it was acknowledged he  wasn't making any noises, and an ambulance was called — the technician who examined Christopher reported he had fixed, dilated pupils and no pulse. Medics eventually ceased resuscitation efforts roughly half an hour later.

    An inquest was held in 2000, and the five officers present that fateful morning were called to give evidence — but they refused to answer over 150 questions, claiming privilege against self-incrimination. Despite this wall of silence, the jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing, and in March 2002 they were charged with manslaughter. However, the trial ended abruptly in June that year when the presiding judge ordered the jury to find the five not guilty on all charges. 

    Following their acquittal, an internal police disciplinary inquiry cleared them of any wrongdoing — and in December 2004, not long after an IPCC review of the case was launched, four of the five officers were granted early retirement on stress-related medical grounds, receiving sizeable lump-sum compensation payments and enhanced pensions in the process. As of August 2018, no one has ever been held accountable for Christopher's death, despite the IPCC ruling in March 2006 officers involved were guilty of the "most serious neglect of duty".

    Dying in Vain


    To say the least, such cases are palpable demonstrations of how ill-equipped for handling certain individuals, particularly society's most vulnerable, police officers can be, and how police stations are thoroughly unsafe places for at-risk individuals. Moreover, they surely offer many lessons authorities of every stripe must learn from, if only to ensure more people don't fall victim to the same things that have claimed lives in the past.

    However, Deborah says UK police from top to bottom appear allergic to learning from past mistakes, making it almost certain they will be repeated in future.

    "With the ongoing lack of accountability, including no manslaughter or murder prosecutions of police officers involved in contentious deaths, it sends out the message deaths in custody don't matter, and there's no incentive for authorities to learn from mistakes and change or end dangerous practices, or address critical issues within police culture. It's easy to see why many bereaved families and people following this issue feel like police can get away with murder."  Deborah told Sputnik.

    INQUEST argue strongly for proper investment in alternative responses to issues of mental health, addiction, poverty and inequality, meaning rather than being forcibly and aggressively moved to police stations by untrained law enforcement officers, those in crisis have access to health-based places of safety. Moreover, effective investigative mechanisms should be put in place to guarantee truth and accountability when deaths in custody occur — mechanisms that accept police officers can engage in criminal conduct and lie. The mere existence of such safeguards, the charity suggest, would have a consequentially dissuasive effect on officers.

    Of course, such seismic changes depend on there being political will to implement and enforce them — while there's rarely if ever been any sign of such inclination among government ministers, recent developments suggest there is a recognition of the need for reform in certain corners of Britain's corridors of power.

    On July 19 2017, Labour MP Steve Reed introduced ‘Seni's Law' to parliament — officially known as the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill, it will require hospitals to publish data on how and when physical force is used, and improve oversight and training so staff are aware of the risks of unconscious bias against minority groups, such as those suffering from mental ill health.

    The bill was inspired by the case of 23-year-old Olaseni Lewis, who died in hospital September 2010, three days after being subject to prolonged restraint by 11 police officers. Olaseni had no history of violence or mental illness, but was taken to the hospital by his parents after an episode of mental ill-health that began over the August bank holiday weekend.

    Although he was a voluntary patient, when he tried to leave on the evening of August 31 a doctor called police to ask for their assistance in detaining him under the Mental Health Act. In an ensuing struggle to lock him in the hospital's seclusion room, he was pinned face-down to the floor for over half an hour on two separate occasions, and stopped breathing — once seemingly subdued, officers left him where he laid. He later died due to hypoxic brain injury and cardiorespiratory arrest.

    Reed worked closely with Olaseni's s family to secure justice for their son — after years of concerted campaigning, their cause was given a significant boost in May 2017 when an inquest found "excessive force, pain compliance techniques and multiple mechanical restraints" used by police on Lewis were "disproportionate and unreasonable" and likely led to his death.

    However, in a disciplinary hearing that October, six police officers involved were cleared of wrongdoing over his death. Hearing chair Tony Blaker, an Assistant Chief Constable, said the death occurred due to "Lewis' [determination] not to be locked in the room", there was nothing his investigative panel had heard or read to indicate officers had used force in any way contrary to their training, and there'd been no failure of leadership by officers in charge. He also accepted officers' claims they thought Lewis was feigning unconsciousness while restrained in an effort to escape the seclusion room.

    MPs from all parties have backed the legislation — if it wins enough support, it will land on the statute books. While nothing can undo the intolerable loss, if successful it would be a landmark development in the ongoing battle by INQUEST for change — and could open the way for other families to secure truth and justice.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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