It is time for the officers involved in the death of Sean Rigg to be held to question
The mealy-mouthed phrase ‘lessons will be learned’ seems to be the last refuge of all senior police officers when caught out with no one else to blame and no other way to explain away a public scandal. We heard it again on Newsnight (BBC2) on 1 August as Assistant Commissioner Simon Byrne, the second most senior officer at Scotland Yard, squirmed in his seat and comprehensively failed to convince anyone that his force had behaved ethically or honourably in relation to the squalid and eminently preventable death of Sean Rigg at Brixton Police Station in August 2008.
At the inquest into Sean’s death earlier this month, damning evidence of police disregard for their own procedures and downright incompetence was presented to the court and, significantly, not challenged by those representing the Metropolitan Police. What was shown beyond doubt was that Sean was a very sick young man. Clinically diagnosed with psychosis, he had been failing to take his medication while living in a hostel and had suffered a classic relapse which manifested itself in bizarre and irrational behaviour. In recordings played at the inquest it was shown that the police were told, not once, but in five increasingly frantic calls, from those who were concerned for his welfare, that he needed help. The place for Sean was the A&E department of his local hospital. What happened was very different.
Four police constables identified and then chased after Sean, and two young inexperienced trainees, PC’s Mark Harratt and Matthew Forward, caught him and wrestled him to the ground. Sean, who was acutely psychotic and stressed, struck out at the officers before being manhandled face down and handcuffed.
The officers gave contradictory accounts about what happened, particularly in relation to how long Sean spent on the ground with an officer leaning on his back – something that is drummed into all officers during their training as a technique which is potentially fatal, especially for people suffering from violent episodes of mental disorder. The officers said that they dealt with him in this way for no more than 90 seconds, but photographic evidence from a female witness proved that Sean was subjected to this restraint for at least eight minutes. It was on this basis that the jury found that “unsuitable” force for “unnecessarily” long, more than minimally contributed to his death.
The officers swore on oath that Sean was then ‘escorted’ to a police van and placed on a seat in a cage in the back, but then claimed that he ‘slumped down into the foot well’. The jury were taken to Brixton Police Station and saw an identical van and it became obvious that the account given by the officers could not possibly be true – the foot well is too short and narrow for Sean to have fallen into it in the way the officers described. He must thus have been in extreme discomfort during his journey to Brixton. The officers all denied seeing any physical injuries on Sean’s body, yet photographs showed several fresh cuts and bruises on his face and a large bruise on his right shoulder blade area, consistent with someone kneeling on his back. Even more significant was the fact that written notes made by the officers, only revealed during evidence, listed Sean’s facial injuries in detail despite them denying any knowledge of them.
On any objective assessment, the evidence given by the arresting officers appeared to be a tissue of lies. However, worse was to come.
The Custody Officer, Sergeant Paul White, spent an entire morning at the inquest giving evidence on oath explaining in detail how he had performed an ‘initial risk assessment’ of Sean in the police van. He explained to the court how he had found him sitting upright in the van, that he was responsive, that he had actually looked him in the eyes and, as a result, was not in the least worried about his welfare. However when CCTV footage was shown to the court, it became abundantly clear that Sergeant White had never been anywhere near the van, nor, evidence seemed to indicate, had he spoken to Sean or conducted a risk assessment. Even more damning was his voice on the CCTV tape when he can be heard telling the police doctor that Sean was “feigning unconsciousness” effectively misleading the doctor about Sean’s medical situation.
Without prompt treatment and effective care by those who had a duty to look after him, Sean died curled up in the foetal position on the concrete floor of a cage at the police station – a tragic and unnecessary end for a young, albeit troubled, man.
Over the years I have seen far too many such cases, but none so clear-cut as the death of Sean Rigg. It is an outrage that Assistant Commissioner Byrne can appear on television and whine that he ‘sincerely regrets’ what happened, while at the same time confirming that in the four years since Sean’s death not one officer has faced discipline proceedings, let alone criminal charges. There is overwhelming proof, at the very least, that Sergeant White committed perjury at the inquest; there is compelling evidence that at least two of the constables may have done likewise. Beyond this, there are clear indications of individual and organisational failure that justify criminal proceedings.
Mr Byrne needs to start earning his salary and set up a searching inquiry to discover who is liable for the death of Sean Rigg.
Image from: http://uffc-campaigncentral.net/category/breaking-news/
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