Deaths in British police custody: no convicted officers since 1969

827 people have died during or following police contact since 2004. Families have struggled hard for justice, encountering multiple failures and police collusion from the IPCC. Why is police accountability failing in this most serious of issues?

Christopher Alder, a trainee computer programmer and former British Army paratrooper who had served in the Falklands War and Northern Ireland, died face down, handcuffed, with his trousers around his ankles on the floor of a police station in Hull in April 1998. Alder, a 37-year-old black man, had been assaulted outside a night club and taken to a local hospital, where he was arrested by officers for an alleged breach of the peace following complaints about his behaviour from nursing staff.

While fit enough to get into a police van by himself, CCTV footage shows that upon arrival at the police station, Alder was unconscious when dragged from the van and placed on the floor of the custody suite. Officers treated Alder like an animal, completely neglecting him while he lay dying on the floor. Officers calmly chatted among themselves, one of them suggesting he was faking illness. Eleven minutes later, when officers finally realised he had stopped breathing, attempts to resuscitate him came too late. It was later revealed that CCTV had captured the officers making monkey noises at the police station that night. Alder died on the scene.

A familiar pattern

Following his death, Alder’s sister Janet launched a long struggle for justice, one that continues to this day. In 2000 a coroner’s jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing, and in 2002 five police officers went on trial accused of manslaughter and misconduct in public office. All were cleared on the orders of the judge. An internal disciplinary inquiry by Humberside Police cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. In 2006, an Independent Police Complaints Commission report concluded that four of the officers present in the custody suite when Alder died were guilty of the "most serious neglect of duty", but the officers responsible walked free. Successive Humberside Police chiefs have failed to act on the conduct of the officers involved.

Alder’s death, the acquittal of officers involved, and the family’s subsequent struggle for truth and justice is a pattern familiar to many families in Britain – so exquisitely documented in the 1999 film Injustice. The last time a police officer was successfully prosecuted for the death of somebody in custody was in 1969, when the two Leeds Police officers responsible for the death of David Oluwale, the first black man to die in police custody in the UK, were found guilty of assault and sentenced to a mere few months in prison. There have been over 1,000 further deaths in custody since. However there has not been a single successful prosecution against any police officer involved in these deaths – despite several verdicts of unlawful killing, most recently in the case of Azelle Rodney. Crucially, these verdicts were handed down only after years of tireless campaigning and painstaking legal challenges by the families of those who lost their lives in custody, many of which are affiliated to the United Families and Friends Campaign.

Who polices the police?

Whenever there is a death in custody, the police have to call in the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The statutory obligation of the IPCC is to secure and maintain public confidence in the system of complaining against the police. Time and again, however, the organisation has shown itself not to be on the side of the complainant, but on the side of the officers it is supposed to investigate.

The IPCC, which over 2012/13 had a budget of £32.5 million and around 400 staff, has proven to be both toothless and biased towards police officers. Whilst it claims to treat the place where a suspicious death in custody has occurred like a crime scene, this is rarely the case. It cannot compel officers to give evidence, and it has historically been reluctant to act with suspicion towards officers involved in custody deaths. The majority of senior investigators within the IPCC are ex-police officers. Since its formation in 2004, 827 people have died during or following police contact. Not a single police officer has been convicted in relation to any of these deaths.

In the case of Sean Rigg, who died at Brixton police station in August 2008, the IPCC did not get to the police station until three hours after he had been formally declared dead, and did not enter the scene where he died until seven hours afterwards. It later emerged that upon arriving to the police station, IPCC investigators had gone into meetings with police officers to prepare a press release, which was later found to be riddled with inaccuracies. It had reproduced the officers’ version of events – Rigg had assaulted a police officer, and he had simply “collapsed” upon arrival to the police station. It also said he had died in hospital, in what the family regards as an attempt to disassociate what had happened at the police station from his death. All of this was later found to be untrue.

Unhappy with the way they were treated by the IPCC, and the watchdog’s investigation, Rigg’s brother and two sisters launched their own investigation, detailed in the 2012 Migrant Media film Who Polices The Police? The family had to fight tooth and nail to get disclosures from the IPCC investigation and demanded a number of pre-inquest reviews. They also managed to obtain an order from the coroner to enter the IPCC’s offices to look at “unused material,” which according to investigators was not relevant at the time. This is precisely where the family found the most seriously incriminating evidence against police officers in the case.

The inquest into Rigg’s death returned a narrative verdict which concluded that the police had used "unsuitable and unnecessary force" on him, that officers failed to uphold his basic rights and that the failings of the police "more than minimally" contributed to his death. Following the verdict the IPCC commissioned an external review of its own investigation, the findings of which were critical, but the report fell short of proposing any genuine reform of the watchdog. In March 2013, three police officers were arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice with regard to evidence given at Rigg's inquest. They are yet to be charged.

More IPCC complicity

Similar evidence of IPCC complicity with police officers was found in the case of Mark Duggan, who was shot in Tottenham, north London, in August 2011, and whose death sparked five of days of rioting in several English cities. Three months after his death it was discovered that the minicab in which he was travelling before he was shot was moved by police officers after the shooting. It was revealed that removal of the cab, containing forensic and other evidence of major significance, had been sanctioned by IPCC investigators before they had even reached the scene.

Earlier this month, two years after Duggan’s death, the IPCC investigation into the shooting has found no evidence of any criminal offence, suggesting it is set to conclude the killing was lawful. However, none of the 11 firearms officers at the scene of the Duggan shooting who were asked to attend interviews have answered oral questions from the IPCC, instead supplying written answers. The officer who shot Duggan, only known as V53, did attend, but declined to answer questions orally, instead submitting written answers two days later.

The IPCC was also partially responsible for creating the false public perception that Duggan had shot at police first. As was the case with Sean Rigg, the IPCC press release reproduced a police lie, and fed this to the media. The police know that the first bit of information about any incident is going to stick in the public’s mind – it gives them a chance to fix the story. The IPCC allowed the Metropolitan Police to do this. The mass media swallowed the shoot-out story, and the tabloids proceeded to portray Duggan as a gangster and a drug dealer, as if its job was to make the killing acceptable to the public. What they were less keen to report was that neither Duggan's DNA nor fingerprints have been recovered from the weapon or the sock it was contained in, and the weapon was found between 10 and 14ft from where he fell, after he was shot twice. The Duggan family hope the truth will come in the inquest next month, but either way, the image of the IPCC as an independent watchdog, capable of holding the police to account, lay in tatters once again.

The IPCC also found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the case of Azelle Rodney, who was shot dead in Edgware, north London, by a police marksman in 2005. But in July 2013, a public inquiry chaired by a retired High Court judge concluded the killing was unlawful. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently considering whether or not to bring criminal charges against E7, the armed officer who fired eight bullets at Rodney, four of which hit him in the head.

Radical reform

What makes the issue of deaths in police custody a major problem for the legitimacy of the British state, with its tradition of policing by consent, is that a number of key institutional state mechanisms interact in ways which mean proper accountability of officers is not achieved in many of these cases. Within Britain’s migrant communities, this lack of access to state justice ties in with a broader experience of everyday racism, a lack of opportunities in the job market, and continuous police harassment such as through stop and search. In Tottenham, a death in custody has led to large-scale rioting twice in the last 30 years.

Recent revelations have shown that Janet Alder was one of many people campaigning for justice who was placed under police surveillance as part of an undercover police effort to smear anti-racism campaigners. Around the same time, it came to light that a former police chief, Sir Norman Bettison, who was involved in the cover-up of police errors during the Hillsborough disaster, allegedly tried to influence the way a witness gave evidence at a public inquiry following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Independent investigative journalism and tireless grassroots campaigning have led to these facts being revealed; they were not borne out of any government-backed investigations.

Prosecuting the police through the existing judicial system has proven to be inadequate. A coroner’s jury handed down a verdict of unlawful killing in the case of Ian Tomlinson in May 2011, yet PC Simon Harwood, the officer responsible for his death, was acquitted in a criminal trial in July 2012. As shown in the cases of Ian Tomlinson, Joy Gardner and Christopher Alder, jurors continue to be bamboozled by inadequate prosecutions by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), raising serious questions about whether CPS barristers can be trusted with these kinds of cases. Under the current system, ex-police officers are investigating the police, and the CPS, usually instructed by the police, is tasked with charging the police with manslaughter or murder.

For public confidence in the police complaints system to return, there is a need for a new watchdog and prosecuting body that are demonstrably independent from any police force. The watchdog that should replace the IPCC must have sufficient powers, resources and will to robustly investigate police misconduct. It must treat the places where people have died in custody as crime scenes, and it needs to be able to compel officers to be interviewed as witnesses and suspects of a crime.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel, as a body of experts and community representatives funded by the state but genuinely independent from it, with a clear remit to “consult with the families of those who died to ensure their views are taken into account” could provide a potential model for a new watchdog. Funding should be made available for independent prosecutions, should the new watchdog find evidence of criminality on the part of police officers. The organisation should have a strong link with the community in which a death in custody has occurred.

For large sections of working class people – those subject to most police activity and force – it is clear that there is one law for them, and another one for the police. But many families and communities are fighting back. Recent public revelations about police misconduct have come about because of the tireless work of families and communities fighting to hold the police to account – and that is the only place from which justice can be served.

About the author

Koos Couvée is a London-based journalist working in local newspapers. He writes about local government and communities, multicultural Europe, the media, football, social policy, policing, and the politics of race and class. He is one of the contributors to The Multicultural Politic.