NEWS
15/06/2020 07:06 BST | Updated 12/10/2020 08:39 BST

Wake Up To How You're Treating Black Men, Top Custody Deaths Lawyer Urges Police

Leslie Thomas says the positive action that is needed can only come when police forces acknowledge existing issues.

A top lawyer specialising in custody deaths says that like the US, the UK has a policing problem affecting Black men.

Leslie Thomas, a leading human rights and civil liberties specialist and expert in claims against the police, told HuffPost UK that forces need to recognise such problems before the required action can be made.

Thomas took to Twitter to post about the UK’s policing problem in the days that followed the death of George Floyd in the USA.

Floyd was killed when he was pinned to the floor by a Minneapolis police officer who put a knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. His killing has ignited protests across the US and around the world.

“So, you think the UK doesn’t have a policing problem?” asked Thomas on Twitter. He repeated the question 29 times. Each time, he cited the deaths of young Black men in police custody in Britain.

He told HuffPost UK: “There are a tonne more. I got bored listing the cases. But that is exactly why I did it.”

In 1999 The Metropolitan Police was called institutionally racist, following the Macpherson inquiry which scrutinised the botched original investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence – a case hampered by racial prejudice and suspected corruption. 

While current Met commissioner Cressida Dick has publicly stated more than 20 years on that she does not believe the force is institutionally racist and is now “utterly different”, this week saw Liberal Democrat candidate for mayor of London Siobhan Benita call for it to be investigated to see whether it still is. 

She told LBC News: “In the past four years, we have seen the biggest breakdown in trust between police and communities in London in a generation.

Charlotte Graham/Shutterstock
Leslie Thomas QC

“Even during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen a disproportionate targeting of BAME communities for lockdown fines.

“If we’re to take systemic racism in Britain seriously, we must be prepared to ask the question: is the Met Police still institutionally racist?”

Ignorance is why so many people persist with the argument that policing is not as bad in Britain as it is in the United States, says Thomas, who was recently appointed professor of law at Gresham College.

The key factor which generated such global outrage over Floyd’s death, he says, is that it was filmed.

He said: “Is there CCTV footage, video footage like that around in relation to some of the other deaths in the UK? Of course there is. Has the public seen it? No. Has it been made widespread like the George Floyd footage? No.”

Thomas represented the family of Christopher Alder, who choked to death while lying face down and unconscious in a pool of blood in a police custody suite in Hull in 1998, as a group of officers stood chatting nearby. An inquest found he died unlawfully and that he died because his ability to breathe was affected by lying face down. No one has been held accountable for his death.

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Christopher Alder died in handcuffs in police custody 

The former paratrooper had been arrested at Hull Royal Infirmary for an alleged breach of the peace after a scuffle outside a hotel in the city centre.

Thomas said: “His death was captured on police station CCTV. I saw Christopher dying on camera and police officers standing around and joking. Not doing anything. You see him die on camera. You hear his last breath.”

He added: “The reason why there has never been the outrage that there’s been that we’ve seen with George Floyd is because the video has never been made public.”

Thomas believes film and photographs are becoming key to holding the police accountable – from the public and within the force itself via body cams and dash cams.   

He said: “The thing is they still have control over the police body cams and police dash cams, that material will help the lawyers in court and help the juries and the judges and the coroners in court in relation to what happened, but in terms of informing the wider public and to have that sea change… take George Floyd, the only reason why white America has been listening and sitting up is because ordinary white Americans, who have no reason to think about organisations like Black Lives Matter, have had those images come into their living rooms, their dining rooms, on the six o’clock news and have been shocked.”

When a death in custody occurs, the police force in question must refer itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) – formerly the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

According to IOPC figures for the past decade, 163 people have died in or following police custody in England and Wales. Of these deaths, 140 were white, 13 were Black and 10 were from other minority ethnic groups.

In comparison to 2011 census data which measures how much of the population these groups make up, Black people are more than twice as likely to die in police custody.

Home Office figures from 2018 also show that Black people are more likely to have force used against them by police, especially with firearms and Tasers.

In 2017, the Angiolini Review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody noted: “Of eight prosecutions of police officers in connection with a death in custody in the last 15 years, all have ended with acquittals.

“These include prosecutions for murder and manslaughter. In fact, there has never been a successful prosecution for manslaughter in such cases, despite unlawful killing verdicts in coroner’s inquests.”

At present, the IOPC is investigating six alleged cases of excessive forced used against Black men by West Midlands Police since February. 

And earlier this month it confirmed it was probing “the force used against a woman by a number of MPS police officers... and her subsequent treatment in custody” following a drugs search in Lewisham on May 9. 

Footage of the Black Londoner shouting “I can’t breathe” while being pinned to the ground by six Metropolitan Police officers was shared online. 

Later this year a police officer is due to go on trial accused of murdering former Aston Villa star Dalian Atkinson in 2016, near his father’s house in Telford, Shropshire.  

Following a three-year inquiry into the death of Atkinson, who went into cardiac arrest in an ambulance on his way to hospital, the IOPC said its investigation gathered evidence which indicated that police contact with the 48-year-old involved the use of a Taser, followed by a period of restraint and other uses of force.

Pc Benjamin Monk, 41, was charged last year with murder and an alternative charge of manslaughter in connection with the incident. He will be asked to formally enter his pleas at the scheduled opening of the trial in September.

Jon Nicholson/Mail On Sunday/Shutterstock
Dalian Atkinson

Pc Mary Ellen Bettley-Smith has entered a not guilty plea to a charge alleging she assaulted Atkinson, who also played for Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday, occasioning actual bodily harm prior to his death on August 15, 2016.

Despite this, Thomas is critical of the IOPC and labelled its predecessor the IPCC “incompetent”. 

He cites the example of Sean Rigg, a Black musician who collapsed and died at Brixton Police Station in August 2008, and whose family he later represented. 

The 40-year-old, who had paranoid schizophrenia, was arrested in nearby Balham and was taken to the station in a police van, escorted by four officers. 

At an inquest in 2012 jurors found the primary cause of Rigg’s death was cardiac arrest and were critical of the “unsuitable” force used when he was restrained by police.

A year later, an independent investigation ruled the IPCC had made a series of errors in its investigation of Rigg’s death. Criminologist Dr Silvia Casale said the IPCC had made basic mistakes – including failing to properly investigate CCTV footage at the police station. The body accepted the report, which recommended that charges were reconsidered.

However, it was another four years before prosecutors finally confirmed that no criminal charges would be brought over his death, bar one count of perjury against the duty custody sergeant, who was later cleared.

Thomas said: “There is photographic evidence that shows the police officers on his back for an excessive period of time compared to what they were saying.”

London News Pictures/Shutterstock
A demonstration against the police in memory of Sean Rigg, who died at Brixton police station

Last year, a police conduct panel dismissed allegations against five officers involved in Riggs’ fatal detention. Chairman Julian Bennett also ruled the officers did not restrain Rigg inappropriately, did not fail to recognise he was suffering with mental health problems and did not fail to ensure he received adequate medical care when it became clear he was seriously ill.

The victim’s sister Marcia Rigg-Samuel told journalists outside the hearing she would continue her fight for justice, adding: “Today’s decision and the fact that somebody can be restrained in the prone position for seven minutes has given the officers a licence to kill.”

A spokesperson for the IOPC said: “Addressing long-term systemic issues like poor cultures, weak systems and inadequate processes also comes through learning, reform and leadership. We have influenced significant national and local reforms since we have been in operation and believe this is fundamental to changing policing practice.

“Police accountability has also evolved. Ten years ago, our predecessor the IPCC had around 100 investigators, independently investigated around 120 cases and its powers were limited.

“Today, the IOPC has over 300 investigators, conducts over 700 investigations a year, looking at the most serious and sensitive cases involving police misconduct and corruption.

“We have been given stronger powers making us one of the most powerful police oversight bodies in the world. Amongst other powers we have powers of arrest, we can direct police forces to hold disciplinary hearings and we can call in any policing incident that may affect public confidence whether or not there is a complaint.”

The IOPC will also next month appeal what it describes as a “landmark case” in the Court of Appeal to determine whether or not a police officer should face disciplinary proceedings for their use of force.

“We believe, in line with other jurisdictions, that the defence that they honestly believed they needed to use that force – including restraint, Taser or a firearm – no matter how unreasonable that belief may be, sets the bar too high.

“We will be arguing, to maintain public confidence in how the police use their powers and are held to account, any honestly held belief must also be reasonable. Now more than ever we need to strengthen, not weaken, police accountability.”

Though Thomas paints a bleak picture, he maintains that there are things the police can do to earn the trust of the public.

“Officers need to make sure that they use their body cameras and their dash cameras,” he said. “Make sure those are switched on. And they need to follow their restraint training.

“You’ll find that every police force in this country will train officers in relation to the dangers of restraint, the dangers of positional asphyxia, the dangers of certain neck holds being inappropriate. Pressure on the back being inappropriate. That keeping somebody face down to restrain them and then get them off their back, these are all things that we know… listening out for the signs.. if somebody says they can’t breathe.”

Thomas added: “You see what happened to George Floyd… there’s nothing new there in relation to somebody saying: ‘I can’t breathe’…  if you’re on your front and pressure is applied to your back, the position you are in, you get starved of oxygen. And we’ve know that for the last two and a half, three decades.”

Indeed the Angiolini report notes: “Deaths following the use of restraint and force by the police in England and Wales are among the most serious of all deaths in custody.”

It added: “There is also evidence to suggest that dangerous restraint techniques and excessive force are disproportionately used on Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people.”

While the report argued that police must recognise that all restraint has the potential to cause death, it highlights that positional asphyxia may occur during or following the use of certain restraint techniques, for example in face down or prone restraint.

It also found: “Currently there is no consistency of training in restraint techniques across the 43 police forces in England and Wales” and called for mandatory and accredited national training.

While he refuses to explicitly state whether he feels racism is a problem in the British police, Thomas’s assertion the vast majority of such cases do involve a disproportionate number of young Black men are backed up by existing data.

He added: “I don’t say young BAME men. I’m talking about young Black men. What I would say is, you certainly have to ask yourself: ‘What is the explanation?’”

Thomas represented the family of Ibrahima Sey, a 29-year-old Gambian asylum seeker, who died in police custody at Ilford police station in March 1996.

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Ibrahima Sey died at Ilford police station after being sprayed with CS gas following his arrest 

He was forced to the ground in the station yard and handcuffed with his hands behind his back, and then sprayed in the face from close range with CS gas.

Thomas’s voice breaks as he recalls the case.

“His wife called police to help him because he was having a mental health crisis,” he recalled. “He was restrained, they spray him and he dies. An inquest jury found he was unlawfully killed. No officers were prosecuted and again, there he is, struggling to breathe, officers on his back and again he dies of positional asphyxia.”

The inquest jury found that Sey had died of restraint asphyxia and excited delirium, but crown prosecutors said there was insufficient evidence to proceed with a criminal case.

Thomas has heard a litany of excuses in court as to why excessive force has been used during arrest and restraint procedures.

He continued: “We used to have all sorts of nonsense said, like: ‘There’s something unique about the African male that triggers sudden death.’ I remember that being put forward.

″‘We have bigger hearts.’ I remember when that nonsense was being put forward.

″‘There’s something about the Black male – he has superhuman strength, it took a dozen of us to hold him down’. I just hear all of these myths being perpetuated and being repeated over time. So, if I speak passionately about this it’s because I do feel very passionately about it because I’ve been seeing these types of deaths for the last 30 years.”

In 2017, a review led by Labour MP David Lammy into the treatment of, and outcomes for Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the criminal justice system concluded they “still face bias, including overt discrimination, in parts of the justice system”.

It made 35 recommendations that the government vowed to “look carefully” at.

Does Thomas feel the government is doing enough?

Prime minister Boris Johnson has said of the Black Lives Matters protests: “You are right, we are all right, to say Black Lives Matter; and to all those who have chosen to protest peacefully and who have insisted on social distancing – I say, yes of course I hear you, and I understand.”

Thomas said: “Well, that’s a start, but it’s not good enough. What we want is action, we want to see positive action. Positive action comes from recognition that this is not just about something affecting the BAME community, this is something that’s specifically affecting the Black community.

“And that’s not to say that my brown brothers and sisters aren’t affected, they are, but when you look at the stats, young Black men are disproportionately affected and there needs to be that recognition, because until you recognise it, you aren’t going solve it. If you deny that’s the problem you’re not going to solve the problem, because you’ve come with the wrong mindset.”