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‘Accidental death’ of a young black Londoner. Rashan Charles EXPLAINER

Police video evidence missing. Long-serving ex-Metropolitan Police officers presented as “independent” experts. Coroner’s contentious directions to inquest jury. The troubling case of Rashan Charles.

Witness 1 continues to restrain Rashan as he lies face down, limp, unresponsive, still handcuffed.

In the early hours of Saturday 22 July last year, a police officer pursued a young man into a Hackney convenience store, grabbed him from behind, threw him to the floor, landing heavily on top of him, and then subjected him to prolonged restraint.

A man police have described as a “member of the public” joined in the restraint, helping the officer to handcuff the young man, who was, by then, limp and unresponsive. 

The young man was Rashan Charles. He died right there, on the white-tiled floor of the Yours Locally shop on Hackney’s Kingsland Road. He was 20 years old. We are not allowed to know the identities of the men who restrained him. 

Lately, at St Pancras Coroner’s Court in London, during eight days of evidence over two weeks an inquest jury watched distressing footage, over and over again, of what was done to Rashan.

On Wednesday, they delivered their verdict: accidental death.

Deborah Coles of the charity INQUEST was among many who found it “difficult to reconcile the harrowing footage of Rashan’s death, and the outcome of this inquest”.

Rashan Charles (Family)

The jurors, seven men and three women, had received surprising directions from the coroner, Mary Hassell. 

She told them to consider whether Rashan’s death was an accident. She did not leave them the option of a more critical conclusion, such as unlawful killing or neglect. 

She said they must not use words such as careless, negligence, foolish, reckless

They could use words such as failure, inadequate, inappropriate, but only if they could set out the clear and direct causal link between any failure and the death that followed, how any failure would have changed the course of events. 

And she told them to keep it brief.

Last summer, on the morning after Rashan died, the Metropolitan Police claimed he had been “taken ill” after “trying to swallow an object”. They claimed that a police officer “intervened and sought to prevent the man from harming himself”. They said Rashan died “in hospital… later that morning”. They did not mention the restraint, or use of force.

That Sunday morning, we published the first report that challenged the official version. We’ve carried on investigating. Here is some of what we’ve learned.

Q: Who was Rashan Charles? 

Rashan Jermaine Charles was a 20 year old Londoner who lived in the Borough of Hackney. He was an avid footballer and well liked by his former teachers.

He left behind a daughter, four months shy of her second birthday when he died.

Close to his mother and grandmother, Rashan had just left his grandmother’s house that Saturday night and was due back the following day, Sunday 23 July. She was going to show him how to make his favourite stewed chicken, his family told us.

The eldest of seven siblings, Rashan had a close bond with them and his cousins. He got on well with his 82 year old great grandfather, who tells the story of when he and Rashan went out to the countryside and Rashan practically jumping into his arms at the sight of an insect. Rashan had planned to visit him and the rest of the family in Grenada. 

Rashan was a young black male, 6’1” tall and slightly built. He weighed about 163 pounds (11st 9lbs). He wore his hair in corn rows, had a white metal ring on his right middle finger, and a tattoo, “RIP Natasha” on his left forearm, a tribute to his severely disabled aunt who the family lost some years earlier.

Q: How did Rashan die?

Rashan died during contact with a police officer and another man, described as a “member of the public”, in the Yours Locally convenience store on Kingsland Road, Hackney, in the early hours of Saturday 22 July, 2017. 

The police initially claimed that Rashan fell ill, the officer intervened to help him, the “member of the public” assisting, and that Rashan died later in hospital. 

But video evidence shows Rashan upright, standing unaided with no signs of being unwell or physically distressed until after he is subjected to a neck hold and a combat throw to the floor. 

The coroner gave anonymity to two police officers and two witnesses, including the men who restrained Rashan. The officer must be referred to as BX47. The “member of the public” who assisted him is Witness 1. 

Q: How did Rashan come into contact with the police officer?

The police say that Rashan was a passenger in a car whose driver was using the indicators indecisively and that the driver’s eyes “lit up” on spotting a police vehicle. They say Rashan left the car, and BX47 gave chase on foot. It’s not clear why. 

The police driver and crew, highly trained officers from the Territorial Support Group (TSG), said they collectively decided not to pursue the car, because it was dark, raining and conditions were bad.

At the inquest, the coroner allowed police lawyers to introduce evidence about Rashan’s teenage convictions for possession of drugs including cannabis, even though, on the night in question, BX47 and his colleagues had no knowledge or intelligence on Rashan, or the other men in the vehicle.

Local police had briefed the TSG team about individuals on their wanted list. Rashan Charles was not one of them

Q: What were the grounds and objectives for the police officer’s stop and search? 

At a meeting with members of the Charles Family on Wednesday 2 August 2017, Tom Shield, lead investigator for the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) — now called the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) — said the vehicle was being stopped under Section 163 of the Road Traffic Act. (A person driving a mechanically propelled vehicle on a road must stop the vehicle on being required to do so by a constable in uniform). However, that section permits a police officer only to stop a car, not search a person.

Rashan did not have a weapon. Neither the Metropolitan Police, the IOPC nor the Crown Prosecution Service contest this fact.

At the inquest BX47 claimed he feared Rashan had a weapon. John Beggs QC, counsel for the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said Hackney had been “plagued” by a summer of “shootings and stabbings”, and that until Rashan was in handcuffs BX47 could not be sure that he did not have a weapon. Expert witness Ian Read, a former police officer who’d spent more than 30 years in the Metropolitan police, agreed with Beggs.

But Rashan had no weapon. He did not threaten or use violence to any person at the scene. The grounds for a stop and search and its objectives remain unclear.

BX47 has Rashan in a neck lock.

Q: Did Rashan swallow a package?

During a delayed resuscitation attempt, a package is said to have been removed from Rashan’s throat. It was later found to contain caffeine and paracetamol.

Home Office pathologist Robert Chapman carried out a post-mortem. In its 22 January 2018 update, the IOPC misrepresented his findings. The IOPC claimed the pathologist found that Rashan died of a sudden cardiac arrest brought on by a blocked upper airway, “caused by him attempting to swallow a plastic package that subsequent forensic testing showed contained a mixture of caffeine and paracetamol”. 

That’s misleading. Chapman did not refer to Rashan “attempting to swallow”. He referred to “a swallowed package”. 

The Met’s lawyer John Beggs pushed the “attempting to swallow” line even further at the inquest, asserting that the CCTV footage showed Rashan “determined to swallow quite a large package of materials”. 

But perhaps Rashan did not attempt to swallow the package at all: it measured approximately 6cm by 7cm. Perhaps Rashan only placed the package in his mouth, and it was the combat throw or restraint that knocked it back into his throat.

Independent medical expert Dr Jasmeet Soar said in evidence at the inquest that the way BX47 tackled Rashan to the ground “clearly contributed” to the packet getting lodged in his windpipeSoar said he couldn’t say Rashan tried to swallow a foreign body, only that Rashan had choked on it. 

The IOPC also reported in January 2018 that the Home Office pathologist identified no other significant injuries to Rashan’s head, neck and torso that would suggest prolonged or excessive restraint in the lead up to his death. That too is misleading. The CCTV recording leaves no doubt that Rashan was subject to significant neck holds and prolonged use of force. 

Q: Was Officer BX47, who restrained Rashan, suspended from duty?

No. The Independent Police Complaints Commission urged the Metropolitan Police Service to suspend him, but the police rejected those urgings and instead put him on “restricted duties”, meaning he would be office-based, and have no direct contact with members of the public.

Q: Disciplinary charges?

On 13 September 2017 IPCC/IOPC Commissioner Cindy Butts stated that the officer was being investigated for gross misconduct, and that he: “may have breached the police standards of professional behaviour regarding the detention and restraint of Rashan as well as how he dealt with Rashan’s medical emergency.” 

After the jury’s verdict on Wednesday, the Met’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Richard Martin, responsible for Professionalism, said he understood the IOPC’s investigation was complete, “and we await its findings”.

Police officer BX47 restrains Rashan Charles on Saturday 22 July 2017

Q: Is the officer facing criminal charges, such as manslaughter?

The Crown Prosecution Service took six months, the statutory maximum period, to consider and reject a (relatively minor) charge of common assault, claiming, in a letter to the family dated 19 January 2017: “It would not be possible to prove to the required standard (so that the magistrates were sure) that the force used by the officer on Rashan was unlawful.”

Rashan’s great uncle, Rod Charles, challenged that decision under The Victims’ Right to Review scheme. 

The CPS told the family on 19 January 2018: “The IPCC/IOPC has yet to decide whether to submit a file relating to any more serious offences.”

Q: What evidence is relevant to the investigations? 

The IOPC/IPCC investigative actions, as outlined on 28 July 2017, include: 
  • • collecting and analysing police body worn video footage, and CCTV footage, and
  • • gathering witness statements from officers, paramedics and members of the public.
  • Other forms of evidence include:
  • • Post-mortem reports, and statements from medical experts including the paramedics and Accident and Emergency doctors who received Rashan.

Q: What is the purpose of police body-worn cameras?

A small and visible camera, positioned usually on the police officer’s chest, is used to capture both video and audio evidence when officers attend incidents, acting as “an independent witness to police actions and interactions”, according to the Met

The officer “will activate the camera themselves at the start of an incident or interaction and continue uninterrupted recording until it is no longer necessary or proportionate to do so.” 

St Pancras Coroner’s Court (Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi)

Q: Has all the relevant evidence been collected and secured?

No. Two pieces of video footage are known to be missing, either unrecorded or deleted. Both concern police officers’ body-worn video cameras.

Missing evidence 1 

One of the officers is said to have accidentally deleted footage. The IPCC/IOPC conceded this in an update to Rashan’s family, on 25 October 2017, 95 days after Rashan’s death, claiming that this officer had been positioned outside the shop, and the lost footage was therefore not evidentially significant. They wrote: 

“We have identified that the body worn video (BWV) footage of one of the officers present at the incident (not a Key Police Witness) was not preserved by the Metropolitan Police Service in the aftermath of 22 July 2017. We are currently attempting to ascertain how this occurred. The officer whose footage has not been captured appears extensively on the BWV of other officers and it is not believed that this represents a significant evidential loss to the investigation.”

Footage of one of the officers present  . . . was not preserved by the Metropolitan Police

Logic suggests that it is impossible to judge the significance of unseen evidence. 

The IOPC says the officer concerned was not physically at the scene (inside the store). However, that officer was engaged in the incident and aftermath. The recordings — captured and then deleted — relate to the overall management of a fatality. The images and sounds that are lost may have had significant evidential value.

Missing evidence 2 

It appears that Officer BX47 failed to activate his camera at the start of the incident involving Rashan, and instead switched it on only after he had thrown Rashan, and performed the heaviest restraint. 

This detail emerged in the Crown Prosecution Service letter to the Charles family on 18 January 2018, explaining and defending the decision not to charge Officer BX47 with common assault, and was confirmed during the inquest. 

The officer apparently switched on his body-worn video just before the “member of the public” intervened and the officer could “immediately” be heard shouting “Spit it out!” and then: “Breathe” and “The drugs don’t matter” and “We want to look after you.”

Q: Did the inquest jury hear independent expert testimony on police training in safe restraint and BX47’s actions?

Two expert witnesses, Ian Read and Martin Graves, former officers of the Metropolitan Police, testified on police training and BX47’s actions. One remains a Met employee, the other continues to work as an external trainer through his own company.

Witness 1 joins the restraint prior to helping BX47 handcuff Rashan Charles.

Rashan’s great uncle, Rod Charles, who is himself a retired Metroplitan Police Chief Inspector, with 30 years service, challenged their claim to independence. He said Read and Graves, with 75 years combined service to the Metropolitan Police between them, “still have an umbilical cord to the Met”

Q: Did the Metropolitan Police Service issue any guidance to officers as a result of Rashan’s death?

Yes. On 22 January 2018, the IOPC stated that it had identified conflicting advice about searching a suspect who may have placed packages in their mouth. The IOPC said that the Met had suspended searching mouths by force “due to the associated risks”. As of 3 October 2017, the Metropolitan Police suspended searching of suspects’ mouths by force.

Q: Good idea?

Perhaps not. The issue in this case is the officer’s departure from official tactics and training. No police training equips or enables a solitary officer to safely carry out a forced mouth search. As the family’s lawyer Jude Bunting put it to BX47 under questioning at the inquest, a “search by mouth” is a multiple officer tactic. It involves pressure points, verbal commands to the person detained, and must be undertaken under controlled conditions with careful monitoring. 

It does not involve inserting hands or fingers inside a suspect’s mouth. 

In accordance with the National Police Chief’s Council Personal Safety Manual, police are trained to treat a person swallowing substances as vulnerable, and to obtain medical treatment without delay. 

Months ago Rod Charles asked the CPS to refrain from directing focus to supposed conflicting advice on forcible mouth searches. He told us: “This is a distraction from the facts of this specific case. There may be different advice on searching between the various UK police forces. However, the police officer concerned is a Metropolitan Police Officer. At the time of this fatality he was trained by, instructed by and deployed by the Metropolitan Police, in its own geographical area. Issues relating to actions taken and instructions given within other police forces distracts from what actually took place in London on 22 July 2017.”

Rod Charles at St Pancras Coroner’s Court on Day One of the inquest, 4 June 2018 (Family) 

Q: Why can’t the officer and the “member of the public” be named?

In November 2017 coroner Mary Hassell granted anonymity to two police officers and two witnesses including the “member of the public”. At the inquest they would be referred to and addressed by cyphers, she said. “They will give evidence from behind a screen and will be visible only to coroner, jury, advocates and interested persons.” 

At a pre-inquest hearing, Neil Saunders, counsel for the two police officers, claimed that officers had received threats on social media and had fears for their safety and privacy. He read from angry tweets attacking the police that were posted in the wake of Rashan’s death.

Oddly, he mentioned the murder of Jo Cox MP by a far-right terrorist engaged in white supremacy as an example of the risks posed to officers. In fact, far right and racist tweets on social media after Rashan’s death strongly supported the police, and promoted the idea of extra-judicial killings.

My starting point is open justice

John Beggs QC, representing the Metropolitan Police Service, supported the anonymity application. Jude Seaborne of the IPCC, claiming to take a neutral stance, “conveyed the concerns of two civilian witnesses.” Both applications were opposed by Jude Bunting, on behalf of Rashan Charles’s mother and grandmother (the family), and the Guardian newspaper opposed the application concerning the police officers.

BX47, Hackney, Saturday 22 July 2017

Coroner Mary Hassell stated: “My starting point is open justice. I regret deeply any departure from that.” She rejected the argument that there was a direct threat to the officers’ lives, but granted the anonymity order anyway “in the interests of justice”.

(A few decades back, police anonymity applications were limited to operational police shootings or counter terrorist operations. Police officers now commonly apply for and are granted anonymity in legal proceedings). 

Q: Is the anonymity order a problem? 

Yes. The process of holding police accountable ought to be open and transparent

The use of cyphers for police officers screened from public view in a coroner’s court may send misleading signals to the coroner, to jurors, to members of the media and the public.

(Besmirching the reputation of the deceased and their family by police lawyers in cases of contentious deaths has been known to happen!).

Worries about the identity and conduct of the “member of the public” might be assuaged if his identity were known. On seeing the video many people assume that the man who helped restrain and handcuff Rashan was a plain clothes police officer. In early August 2017 we submitted written questions about his role to the IPCC. They declined to state the man’s occupation, but said he was “not connected to the police”. We requested clarification. They said: “not police or security services”.

Q: Who represented the Metropolitan Police at the Rashan Charles inquest?

John Beggs QC, reckoned to be “the best cross-examiner outside the Criminal Bar”, was hired to lead the legal team representing the Met. 

Beggs, who represented three match commanders at the Hillsborough Inquest, is described by his chambers Serjeants’ Inn as “the go-to counsel for prosecuting or defending police officers in serious misconduct cases”.

Q. Was Rashan’s family entitled to free legal representation at the inquest? 

The family was entitled to limited legal aid. The inequality of arms between bereaved families and agents of the state is extreme. Rashan’s family were severely constrained in their ability to probe and challenge serious concerns about his death. (The Chief Coroner, in his annual report late last year, urged that families should be granted legal aid at inquests in which agents of the state are legally represented.) 

Q: What does Rashan’s family want? 

Speaking for the family, Rod Charles says the family wants to see:

•  Significant improvement in the independent investigation.

•  Officer BX47 to be brought to trial in the Crown Court on manslaughter charges. 

•  Hold specific parties to account for their actions and omissions, where these apply. 

•  Enhanced support for those police officers who are delivering effective policing. Rod Charles told us: “Many excellent officers are adversely affected by the major failings of some of their colleagues.”

•  Improve training of officers in the use of restraint to prevent future deaths of unarmed or vulnerable people following police contact, deaths such as those of Rashan Charles, aged 20, Edson Da Costa, 25, Sean Rigg, 40, Roger Sylvester, 30, Nuno Cardoso, aged 25, and others. 

Rashan Charles, the eldest of seven children, with his little brother and sister. (Family)


 

 

Note: CCTV footage from the Hackney convenience store circulated on-line in the hours after Rashan’s death. The Guardian pixellated that footage in light of the anonymity ruling. We link to the Guardian’s version. For Shine A Light’s complete reporting of the Rashan Charles story, by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi and Clare Sambrook, see here.


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