Police watchdog report is ‘only the beginning’ for custody deaths campaign


theweek120by150Activists say a new report by MPs is only a “starting point” for a campaign to raise awareness of the deaths and abuse of people with mental health conditions in police custody.

They say the new report by the home affairs select committee into the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has “shone a spotlight” on the issue.

Although the committee focused in its report on the IPCC’s need for greater power and resources, it had heard during evidence sessions from two leading campaigners for the rights of mental health service-users.

Matilda MacAttram, director of the campaign group Black Mental Health UK, and Marcia Rigg, whose brother Sean died in police custody in 2008, had both raised concerns about the number of mental health service-users from the UK’s African-Caribbean community who have died in police custody.

In 2011-12, almost half of those who died in, or shortly after, leaving police custody were identified as having mental health conditions, while in 2011, more than a third of those who died in police custody were from black or minority ethnic communities.

The committee says in its report that there is “ongoing concern about racism in the police and the IPCC”, and it calls for better training around equality and discrimination issues for all IPCC commissioners, investigators and caseworkers.

Keith Vaz, the Labour MP and chair of the committee, said the IPCC had investigated “just a handful” of serious cases and “often arrived at the scene late, when the trail had gone cold”, while it was “on the brink of letting grave misconduct go uninvestigated”.

MacAttram had told the inquiry that “overuse of force” by the police was “the norm” when they were dealing with someone they knew used mental health services.

She told the committee in her evidence last October that a “disproportionate” number of African-Caribbean people died after the use of “prone restraint”, which involves holding the person face down on the floor. Because of their medication, mental-health service users are more likely to die if they are restrained, she said.

She told the inquiry that restraint should only be used by police if someone was armed, and detailed the case of Kingsley Burrell-Brown, who died in Birmingham in March 2011 after he was restrained by a team of at least five police officers, and was later found with marks from a Taser stun-gun “all over his body”.

She called for an end to the use of police cells as “places of safety” when someone has a psychotic episode, and said community- and health-based facilities should be used instead.

Rigg had told the inquiry: “A police cell is not a place of safety for a vulnerable person, and vulnerable people like my brother should not be treated as criminals.”

She had also told the inquiry that her family had been forced to conduct their own investigation into her brother’s death because of their lack of faith in the IPCC, and she accused the IPCC of being “very biased in favour of the police”, often asking ex-police officers to investigate the most controversial deaths.

MacAttram warned this week that the committee’s recommendation for there to be no more than 20 per cent of IPCC investigators with a police background would not be enough to end the police “culture and values that currently undermine public confidence” in the watchdog.

But she said the organisation supported calls by the committee “to address the racism within the IPCC and the need to apply non-discriminatory practices, given the disproportionate number of cases involving ethnic minorities, particularly in relation to deaths in custody”.

She said the committee’s report had “put a spotlight on the abuses of vulnerable mental health service-users at the hands of the police” and would be used by campaigners as a “starting-point we are going to use to push our agenda forward”.

The IPCC said in a statement that it welcomed the committee’s “recognition that it cannot meet public expectations without increased resources and powers”, and said it endorsed “many of the recommendations” in the report.

6 February 2013