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Education Around Mental Health Is Needed to Limit Deaths in Police Custody

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For those like myself who have a family member who suffers from a mental health illness, the inquest into Sean Rigg's death has highlighted a worrying trend of mental health sufferers dying in police custody. Like Sean, Olaseni Lewis also died while under the care of the south London and Maudsley NHS trust.

Despite the complexities surrounding these cases, the common thread is the excessive use of force for an unreasonable amount of time.

It is worrying that there is an obvious lack of training and understanding where mentally unwell people should be taken following a breakdown and who is in charge when these scenarios arise.

My family and I are accustomed to the varying types of behaviours displayed and associated with a mental health illness. Some might dismiss this as acting 'crazy' or 'nuts'. These characteristics being understood as threatening or dangerous can lead to restraint by police and in some situations result in the tragic end of a life. Although my uncle's illness is under control by medication the fact remains that like many others he could well end up as another case 'under investigation'.

The families of the deceased are left with little peace of mind provided by the IPCC when it comes to an impartial investigation around these circumstances. This has been evidenced most recently with the delay in the inquest of Olaseni Lewis who collapsed during prolonged restraint by police in 2010 and died three days later.

Seni was restrained three times - first by hospital staff and then by police for 45 minutes before his collapse. Sean Rigg was restrained for eight minutes in the prone position and subsequently died of a cardiac arrest. He was transported to Brixton police station after having a psychiatric break down near the care home he was staying at in south London. The question is why would an unwell person be taken to a police station when clearly needing medical care and attention?

The inquest found this restraint was for a length of time that "more than minimally" contributed to his death. This is despite a previous report from the IPCC stated officers acted 'reasonably' and 'proportionately'.

Coroner Andrew Harris highlighted the key issues he will look at in his Rule 43 report. This will provide "action that should be taken to prevent the occurrence or continuation of such circumstances, or to eliminate or reduce the risk of death."

• Joint mental health protocols across London are not clear. He said he was not fully satisfied that the risks of failure of the various parties caring for mental health patients in a crisis will not be repeated.
• The failure of South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLAM) to undertake a mental health assessment.
• He said he could not be sure that Metropolitan Police emergency call operators were adequately trained in mental health issues. He will recommend a force-wide review of training.
• The lack of assessment of mental health issues the police officers who arrested Mr Rigg had.
• Unsuitable force and length of restraint.
• He said officers were too focussed on the risk of violence and not on the potential mental health issues.

He also added there was a "significant risk" for mental health patients experiencing a crisis who come into police contact. This highlights the consistent lack of accountability for those in charge of these situations.

In a surprising decision, Kent Police officers PC Maurice Leigh and PC Neil Bowdery are to be charged with alleged misconduct in public office. This follows the death of 52-year-old mental health user Colin Holt, who died from positional asphyxia while being detained at his Gillingham flat two years ago. This is the first police prosecution relating to death in the custody, but with recent reports claiming the annual number of fatalities climbed to 189 last year there is a clear absence of accountability. This leaves the families involved with years of waiting for answers, clarity and justice.

In addition to a need for education around mental health there also needs to be a level of care administrated by the police. Arresting and restraining people comes with responsibility, and death should not be an outcome.

It is now reported a panel of experts has been formed to work with the IPCC in its review of cases involving a death following police contact including Deborah Coles, co-director of the charity INQUEST. However, mental health can no longer be taboo and there needs to be action taken to implement adequate training and exercising of basic compassion.

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