The finding by the official Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) that 333 persons have died in police custody over the past 11 years, but no police officer has been successfully prosecuted, is very disturbing. It’s true that nearly three-quarters of these deaths were due to drug or alcohol abuse unconnected to police custody, though the conclusion should be drawn that persons in such a near-terminal state should be taken, not to a police cell, but to a treatment centre where they could be given whatever help might still be possible (and restrained if that were necessary). But that still leaves a small minority of cases where police involvement in the death should be seriously questioned.
The IPCC report notes that prosecutions were recommended against 13 police officers on the basis of “relatively strong evidence of misconduct or neglect”. Not one however was found guilty. A quarter of the 333 deaths were the result of restraint, most commonly being held down by officers. Yet in no case was there a successful prosecution.
There is indeed a long history of legal impunity for the police over such incidents not only over the period covered by the IPCC report (1998-2010), but over the decades beforehand. There are a number of alternative verdicts which can be reached at a coroner’s inquest: accidental death, suicide, death by misadventure, unlawful killing, or open verdict. Obviously the latter two are the ones for most concern, and there have been several of them over the years. To quote just a few examples, Oliver Pryce aged 30 died in Middlesborough in 1990 after being held in a necklock by police; the verdict was unlawful killing, but no disciplinary action was taken. Leon Patterson aged 31 died in Manchester in 1992 after being left without sufficient medical treatment in police cells; the original verdict was unlawful killing, but no disciplinary action was taken. Joy Gardner aged 40 died in Hornsey, London, in 1993 from suffocation after her mouth was taped over by police and immigration officers; 3 officers were prosecuted for manslaughter, all were cleared, and no disciplinary action taken. Richard O’Brien died aged 37 in Southwark, London, in 1994 after being held down by police officers; the verdict again was unlawful killing. Shiji Lapite aged 34 died in Stoke Newington, London, in 1994 after being restrained and put in a neck hold by police; again the verdict was unlawful killing. Roger Sylvester aged 30 died in Tottenham in 1999 after being restrained by police; the CPS investigated, but concluded that no police officer should face criminal charges. And many more.
Given this long history that even in those cases where the evidence looked most damning, either there was no prosecution or the prosecution failed or there was an absence of any disciplinary action (even in such a case as the police shooting of the innocent Jean-Charles Menezes in London in 2005), a view has grown widely that police officers – like bankers – are untouchable. It is believed that the state protects its own – its own security force as well as bankers regarded as part of the political-financial nexus underpinning the capitalist state. This is a very unhealthy situation for democracy. Since juries are clearly unwilling to convict, however strong the evidence, perhaps police officers and other state personnel in such circumstances should be tried in a specialist court presided over by a judge.