Was Rashan Charles unconscious when police handcuffed him?
Death of a young black man during police restraint. We revisit the medical evidence.
One day in June last year, an expert medical witness told an inquest jury that Rashan Charles was unconscious when two unidentified men (one a police officer) handcuffed him during a lethal restraint in London in July 2017. That summer in England Rashan was one of four young black men to die during or after police restraint.
Rashan Charles was 20 years old. He died in the early hours of Saturday 22 July 2017 on the floor of the Yours Locally shop on Kingsland Road in Hackney, East London.
A police officer from the Metropolitan Police Service's Territorial Support Group pursued Rashan into the convenience store, grabbed him from behind, threw him to the floor, then restrained and handcuffed him with the help of a man police described as a “member of the public”. Neither man’s identity may be revealed.
The incident was caught on the store’s CCTV cameras, and also by police body worn cameras (bodycams)—but only in part. The police officer who restrained Rashan failed to activate his bodycam until late in the incident. Another officer’s footage was, according to the police watchdog, “not retained” and the police were “unable to confirm if this was due to human or computer error”.
Shine A Light’s investigation
We’ve been investigating this fatal incident, on and off, since the day after Rashan died, when the Metropolitan Police Service claimed that he was “taken ill” after “trying to swallow an object”, and that police “intervened and sought to prevent the man from harming himself”. The BBC reported the official version without question.
That same day we published the first report to challenge the official story. Clare Sambrook analysed footage from the store. It had been recorded by mobile phone off a CCTV monitor and shared online in the hours after Rashan’s death. Clare’s article described the police officer’s grab from behind, the hard throw to the ground, the prolonged restraint, the forceful participation of the second man in restraining Rashan.
Since then we have compiled a searchable database of second-by-second images taken from original super-clear CCTV footage that is not in the public domain. We’ve used this to inform our analysis and investigation.
Rod Charles, Rashan’s great uncle and a retired Metropolitan Police Chief Inspector, has brought expertise in public order, control and restraint and informed scrutiny to our analysis of the actions of the highly trained officer who restrained Rashan and the “member of the public” who joined in.
Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi attended the pre-inquest hearing in November 2017, and every day of the two-week inquest in June 2018 at St Pancras Coroner’s Court, taking detailed notes of more than 40 hours’ worth of material on: police training on use of force, discussion of medical evidence, five statements from absent witnesses, evidence from 14 witnesses in person, repeated viewings of footage from CCTV and police body worn cameras.
Last year we broke off from our work to raise funds to continue. Lately we’ve returned to the case.
Today we examine the medical evidence the jury heard on Thursday 14 June 2018, the last day of evidence at the inquest. On that day, three pathologists, one reporting to the coroner, one on behalf of the Police Federation, one for the family of Rashan Charles, agreed that the cause of death was cardiac arrest due to obstruction of his upper airway by a foreign body. This was a package that Rashan was said to have concealed in his mouth soon after he entered the convenience store.
The jury was told that the package, found to contain paracetamol and caffeine, measured 60mm x 70mm. (The third dimension wasn’t provided.)
How did restraint contribute to Rashan’s death?
The pathologists disagreed on how restraint contributed to Rashan’s death. Pathologist for the coroner, Dr Robert Chapman, said restraint may have contributed to Rashan’s death, but was not the cause of death. He didn’t think Rashan was restrained for an inappropriate period of time.
Professor Peter Vanezis, the pathologist instructed by the family, said Rashan died during a period of restraint — an opinion the jury echoed in their verdict.
Vanezis said the restraint would have made it more difficult for Rashan to expel the package and stop himself from choking.
He said the CCTV footage showed that when the police officer took Rashan to the ground, his arm was around Rashan’s neck for a short while. Vanezis ruled out positional asphyxia as a cause of death.
He said it was “quite clear” that Rashan had been taken to the floor where there was “quite a bit of struggle”. Rashan was held down, but there was no evidence of assault, he said.
Ashley Fegan-Earl, the pathologist instructed by the Police Federation, said that if restraint contributed to Rashan’s death, it was only where it may have prevented Rashan from expelling any obstruction.
Was Rashan unconscious when they handcuffed him?
Dr Jasmeet Soar, an independent expert in cardiac arrest and resuscitation, gave evidence about the restraint.
The court repeatedly viewed CCTV footage of the police officer throwing Rashan to the ground and restraining him, and the “member of the public” joining in the restraint and helping the officer to handcuff Rashan.
Soar said he was confident that Rashan had already lost consciousness at the point he was handcuffed.
Due to the coroner's anonymity ruling the officer and the “member of the public” were known by cyphers BX47 and Witness 1. A second officer, a police medic who arrived during the restraint’s final moments, and administered CPR, was known as BX48.
Dr Jasmeet Soar repeatedly told the court that he was certain, from looking at the footage, that Rashan had already gone into cardiac arrest when police medic BX48 arrived, the handcuffs were removed, Rashan was turned onto his back and CPR commenced. The coroner asked Soar to talk the jury through the shop’s CCTV footage and the partial footage from the police officers’ bodycams. Soar pointed to one particular moment. Rashan is on the ground and being restrained by BX47, just before Witness 1 joins in.
Soar alerted the jurors to Rashan’s eyes. They were “slightly staring”, he said. Rashan’s hand briefly goes up towards his face, somewhere near his eye. “It could be that he is stiffening up because he is having trouble breathing,” said Dr Soar. “Or, it could be a purposeful movement.”
He said it was difficult to tell whether the movement of Rashan’s hand was purposeful. He is clearly unwell, but his precise state is uncertain, Soar said. Then Witness 1 joins the restraint. He and BX47 handcuff Rashan, then turn him on his side. Soar said: “Around this time I say I’m fairly confident that he is unconscious.”
Soar said the only movement from Rashan after this point is a clenching of the jaw and staring vacantly, and these things were “compatible with being unconscious”. He added that there is no obvious purposeful eye movement, no response from Rashan when a lot of things are being done to him.
Was Rashan biting, or not?
Witness 1 can be heard on the police bodycam footage telling Rashan: “Stop biting my finger. I’m trying to help you.”
This is after Rashan is handcuffed, after Soar says he thinks Rashan is unconscious. On day three of the inquest, Witness 1 was questioned about this. He admitted that he couldn’t be sure that Rashan was in fact biting.
The coroner asked Soar for his opinion. He said it was possible to misinterpret a clenched jaw for biting.
Earlier in the inquest, people who had been in the shop and witnessed the restraint said they saw Rashan struggling to breathe, or having a seizure.
Lawyers for the police suggested over and over again that Rashan showed no “classic” signs of choking.
They asked witness after witness if Rashan was spluttering, coughing or gasping for breath, as if it were impossible to choke quietly.
The witnesses said he wasn’t coughing, spluttering or gasping for breath.
Dr Jasmeet Soar, the expert in cardiac arrest and resuscitation, told the court that it was easy for him to identify that Rashan was struggling to breathe — in hindsight, with his experience, knowing there was something in Rashan’s mouth and having access to video evidence.
He said: “There is no obvious point where you would suspect choking. . . It’s not obvious unless the context is right.”
If there are no obvious signs of choking, and someone appears unconscious or unresponsive, what should you do? Soar said: check for breathing.
Depending on their responsiveness, you would uncuff the person, get them to a standing or seated position, administer back blows and abdominal thrusts. Hopefully, this would dislodge the foreign body, he said.
The coroner responded that to do this you would need to know they are choking.
Soar said if they are choking properly they won’t be able to talk. Even after Rashan has lost consciousness, Soar continued, if someone had retrieved the foreign body, then, “on the balance of probabilities” Rashan would have survived.
He said: “Once cardiac arrest happens, on balance of probabilities it becomes non-survivable.” That is why when someone is choking, you are supposed to start CPR once they lose consciousness.
The coroner persisted. She said again, you have to know they are choking to start CPR. Soar replied that even if you can’t tell someone is choking, if they aren’t breathing normally, if they are unresponsive and unconscious, you start CPR.
The coroner asked Soar if a decision to start CPR would depend on seeing that Rashan was not breathing normally.
Soar answered that CPR should be administered as soon as Rashan stops making obvious breaths.
But the coroner insisted: “We don’t know he is not breathing normally at this stage.”
After prolonged questioning from the coroner and police lawyers, Soar told the court he could not pinpoint the exact moment Rashan stopped breathing normally just by looking at the footage. Testing for normal breathing relies on listening and feeling, as well as looking for particular signs, he said.
Soar said that from the footage alone, he could be certain that Rashan isn’t breathing normally only when the late-arriving officer, BX48, has uncuffed him, rolled him onto his side and is about to start CPR.
“I don’t see any signs of respiratory effort,” he said. “If it was there, it was minimal.”
Before police medic BX48 arrives, it is difficult to judge Rashan’s breathing from the footage, because at times his face is obscured from view, Soar said. When questioned further Soar said that you don’t go from 'normal' to 'stopped breathing', there is a period of deterioration.
The inquest had already heard from Peter Fisher, a London Ambulance Service paramedic, who arrived on the scene shortly after police medic BX48. Fisher told the court that the first time he looked into Rashan’s throat he couldn’t see an obstruction.
After a few chest compressions, Fisher said, Rashan vomited. Fisher looked into his throat again. This time, he said, he saw the package at Rashan’s vocal chords, around his Adam’s apple. He used a suction machine and then forceps to pull the package out.
The jury asked: what happened between the first and second examination? Fisher replied that the package was likely below Rashan’s vocal chords until he vomited, and then it appeared. But Soar, the expert in cardiac arrest and resuscitation, disagreed with that analysis.
Soar had studied the CCTV footage of the paramedics treating Rashan on the shop floor. He said that Fisher could have missed the package when he looked the first time — he didn’t look for very long. “I think it was always there,” Soar said. “Once he had done a bit of suction he was able to pull it out with forceps.”
Soar said he couldn’t see any way for the package to get down to the stomach and all the way back up again. More likely it stayed lodged in Rashan’s windpipe until the suctioning and forceps removed it.
Prevention of future deaths
The jury heard eight days of evidence over two weeks from police officers, paramedics, pathologists, and from people who had happened to be there in the shop. They also heard from two men, presented as independent experts on police safety training, who, between them, had 75 years combined service to the Metropolitan Police.
The inquest closed on Wednesday 20 June 2018. The jury returned a narrative verdict and said Rashan’s death was an accident. The coroner, Mary Hassell, in her directions to the jury, had not left open the possibility of a more critical conclusion such as neglect or unlawful killing. She said she did not believe “a reasonable jury could see this”.
The coroner's primary duty is to determine how somebody came by their death. Where there is the potential to prevent future deaths, the coroner is obliged to write a report and make recommendations. On 29 June 2018 Coroner Mary Hassell completed such a report relating to the death of Rashan Charles. She addressed it to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist of the Metropolitan Police Service.
In her Prevention of Future Death Report report Hassell asserts:
“There was a struggle, during which the police officer detained him, took him to the ground and, with the assistance of a bystander, handcuffed him.”
That description—“there was a struggle during which the officer detained him”—might suggest a scuffle, a fight, Rashan resisting arrest before he was thrown to the floor. But the video evidence played repeatedly at the inquest shows Rashan complying with the police officer, exhibiting no violence, no hint of resistance, before the hard throw to the ground.
The coroner’s report asserts that Rashan lost consciousness after being handcuffed. This assertion is not supported by the video evidence: when Rashan is handcuffed, he is face down on the floor, completely still. Witness 1 takes Rashan’s limp right hand behind his back and passes it, for BX47 to apply handcuffs. Nor does it reflect the opinion of Dr Jasmeet Soar, the independent expert in cardiac arrest and resuscitation, who said he was confident that Rashan had already lost consciousness at the point he was handcuffed.
Our work continues.
*Shine A Light is a small independent project. We’re grateful for funding from the Bertha Foundation and the Roddick Foundation. We are keen to hear from other funders who might consider helping us to support more journalists to investigate contentious state-related deaths and train young reporters in this field. We welcome reader donations of any size.
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