Rashan Charles, became "unwell" following contact with police
UFFC on the march. Pic by Peter Arkell

Not one police officer has been successfully prosecuted for a death in police custody in the last 15 years, a major report has revealed, writes Adwoa Korkoh

Carried out by Dame Elish Angiolini QC, it makes 110 recommendations about reforms to the police, justice system and health service.

It came just days after hundreds of people joined the annual United Families and Friends Campaign march in central London on October 28 to protest against deaths in police custody.

Among the many banners held aloft were those depicting images of Sean Rigg and and Olaseni Lewis, who died after being restrained by officers in 2008 and 2010 respectively, Rigg at Brixton police station in south London and Lewis in a mental health hospital.  All the officers involved were subsequently acquitted, despite unlawful killing verdicts at inquests into both of the deaths.

Rashan Charles, became “unwell” following contact with police

Marchers pointed out last time a police officer was successfully prosecuted for the death of somebody in custody was in 1969, when the two Leeds police officers were found guilty of assault in relation to the death of rough sleeper David Oluwale and given a prison sentence.

Like Oluwale, Rigg and Lewis were black and suffered from mental health problems. According to the charity Inquest, around 10 per cent of the 1,500 people who died in or following police custody in England and Wales since 1990 were from black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Between 2004-2015, 47 per cent suffered mental health problems, says Inquest.

The 300-page report says: “There is evidence of disproportionate deaths of black and minority ethnic people in restraint-related deaths.” It adds such deaths triggers disquiet in communities and damages trust, which is “exacerbated” by a sense those responsible are not held to account.”

It also recommends a ban on those detained under mental health laws being held in police cells, and being transported in police vehicles, except in exceptional cases; while holding those believed to be suffering from mental health problems in police cells should be phased out completely.

Deaths in police custody also include those shot dead by police like Mark Duggan, whose killing sparked off the 2011 riots, and Azelle Rodney, shot in the head four times in 2005.  In both cases, juries accepted the police claim that the use of lethal force had been a necessary form of self-defence.

The mounting outrage over the lack of accountability in deaths in police custody prompted Theresa May to commission the review in 2015 while she was Home Secretary, appointing Dame Elish Angiolini, formerly Scotland’s top prosecutor, to head it. Hailed as a landmark step in the right direction,  it was meant to have have been submitted last year and its continued delay prompted further criticism of the authorities.

Since then there have been more deaths of people following police contact, including that of Rashan Charles, 20, who died after becoming “unwell” under restrain by police in July, and Edson da Costa, 25, who was died six days after being apprehended and sprayed with CS gas..

“I welcome the recommendations of the review but cannot understand why we have waited two and a half years for its publication,” shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott told the Independent newspaper.  “More families have lost loved ones while this Tory government continues to ply communities with warm words, broken promises and delay tactics.

“These findings will come as no surprise to BAME communities and campaigners like those in the United Friends and Families Campaign. The government must not drag their feet to bring about urgently needed reforms. Enough is enough.”

In response to the report, the government  says that legal aid should be awarded for representation of the bereaved at an inquest following a suspicious death or suicide in police custody or in prison.

It also says that from December, police cells will not be used as places of safety for those under the age of 18 detained under the Mental Health Act and that transparency and accountability in the use of force by police has been improved through better data collection.

“This simply isn’t right, and is why the government is taking steps to ensure that families bereaved in this way in future get the support and answers they need,” Home Secretary Amber Rudd said.

She added: “The government is committed to tackling this issue and that when tragically deaths in police custody do occur, we are clear that they must be investigated thoroughly and action taken to support families better in future.”