The Blog

'What Have We Done to Deserve This?' - Victims of Police Custody Deaths Long for Recognition

Our criminal justice system has long discriminated against those who have lost family members at the hands of the police. Instead of being recognised as victims, such families are victimised from the very first meeting with the police onwards.

The Victims' Commissioner's report last week and her remarks about how victims of crime should not feel ignored and confused are welcome. But I was disappointed (if not surprised) that bereaved families of deaths in custody were wholly omitted from the report.

Our criminal justice system has long discriminated against those who have lost family members at the hands of the police. Instead of being recognised as victims, such families are victimised from the very first meeting with the police onwards.

Marcia Rigg-Samuel, the sister of Sean Rigg who died in Brixton police station in 2008, explained how, from the outset, her family were misinformed about the cause of death: "they said Sean suddenly collapsed and died, I knew something was not right". Her distress was further aggravated when the authorities refused to give the family access to his body.

The police insisted that Sean's body "belonged to the state"; instead, the family was given his passport to identify him. "I was distraught, how could they replace my brother's flesh and blood with some papers", Marcia recalled. The autopsy was also scheduled to take place without the family's knowledge or consent.

Unfortunately, Marcia's experience does not stand alone. Dozens of families suffer the same ill-fate each year. In trying to protect its officers, the police appear to go out of their way to alienate victims' families. Alison Orchard, the mother of Thomas Orchard who died in police custody in 2012 also explained that she had to "fight very hard to get Thomas's body".

The legal process is not any less excruciating. Alison had to wait 21 months to see the CCTV evidence, while in Sean Rigg's case the IPCC's transcription of the footage of his death was sub-standard so Marcia and her siblings had to do it themselves. Marcia was traumatised "it is bad enough losing a brother once, let alone watching him die over and over again", she explained.

Money is also a worry. While police officers' legal representation is automatically funded from the public purse, victims' families have to go through an intrusive legal aid means assessment process that includes all of the deceased's siblings and their partners - well beyond the normal household of an applicant for public funding - and are often asked to make contributions of thousands of pounds. Marcia's family were initially asked to pay £21,000 towards the legal costs of Sean's inquest, which was a baffling proposition: why should families have to pay to find out what happened to their loved ones at the hands of the state?

It is a war of attrition, or that's how the families perceive it. As the leading charity in this area, INQUEST, has recommended eight years' ago, families need a transparent process for the release of information. Instead, information is deliberately withheld, families are often monitored and any questions are frowned upon. The extent of monitoring of such families and in some cases their lawyers has still not been fully uncovered by the series of investigations set in motion by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, before and after the revelations regarding the active police surveillance of the family of Stephen Lawrence.

The hostility is so grave that families of those who have died at the hands of the state often report going through episodes of re-traumatisation and feeling criminalised. Specialised counselling is not on the table for such families. Even where the Independent Police Complaints Commission makes an early announcement of a criminal investigation into a death in custody, Victim Support seems to only offer assistance at the point of charge, which in some cases, such as that of Susan Alexander, the mother of Azelle Rodney, could take close to a decade from the death.

Alison Orchard said "coping is enormously difficult, we are trying to grieve at the same time as holding down jobs, supporting each other and trying to get around our heads around what has happened to Thomas and getting justice for him". Even with the support of INQUEST and other bereaved families, they can never be fully prepared: Alison found it particularly difficult coming face-to-face with those who have now been charged with Thomas's death.

As Deborah Coles of INQUEST said at a recent conference on victims' rights "The families of those who have died as a result of state crime, (in custody or detention) should have equal access to the rights afforded other victims and there is an urgent need to redefine the victim narrative." Trying to protect police officers at the expense of these families' wellbeing is not acceptable. The delays and the lack of support have to stop now. Justice needs to take its course regardless of who the defendant might be.