Many of those packed into the public gallery broke into spontaneous applause as the inquest jury delivered its’ verdict in the case of Sean Rigg. An African drum started beating and the coroner looked uncomfortable. It felt like justice, but in truth it was only the start. The next challenge will be turning the scathing inquest conclusion into criminal charges against police officers.
After hearing six weeks of evidence about the circumstances surrounding the death of the physically healthy 40-year-old musician, who died in police custody four years ago, the jury concluded that the way police restrained him had ”more than minimally” contributed to his death.
Mr Rigg had been held face-down a prone position by police, with force placed on his back for eight minutes, suffering positional asphyxia which contributed to his cardiac arrest as he lay slumped in a ‘cage’ in the courtyard of Brixton police station in August 2008.
Also, watch the excellent report on BBC Newsnight.
In a chilling echo of the death of Christopher Alder, in 1998, police were pictured on CCTV standing around as Sean Rigg lay dying on the floor. One officer claimed Mr Rigg was “faking it”, the same words used ten years previously in Hull. In both cases officers failed to take action despite the rapidly deteriorating condition of the two men, and didn’t act until it was too late.
Yet on BBC Newsnight last night, the Met’s assistant commissioner Simon Byrne talked blithely about “lessons being learnt”. The same bland words we’ve heard many times before, words that become increasingly meaningless with every passing tragedy.
If there were similarities between Mr Alder and Mr Rigg when it came to police turning a blind eye to their deteriorating health, there are also some parallels between the death of Mr Rigg and that of Roger Sylvester in 1999. He died in Tottenham after being forcibly restrained by officers for long than necessary, causing positional asphyxia.
I recall senior Met officers saying at the time that lessons would be learnt when concerning how police hold people in restraint. There are many other occasions where there were similar promises of lessons being learnt.
Police restraint was also an issue in the death of Frank Ogburo, who died in 2006. An inquest into his death found that ”had the risk factors been correctly identified and acted upon it is likely that Mr Ogburo would have survived”.
We are still awaiting the inquest into the death of Seni Lewis in 2010. He died after being restrained by police at the Mayday Hospital in Croydon after his family took him there for observation.
The sad truth is that if past lessons had truly been learnt Mr Rigg would not have died. And we have precious little to give hope that similar future deaths will not continue to occur.
The other factor that all these tragedies share is that in every case, to my knowledge, no police officer has lost their job. Indeed we know that some have actually been promoted. In most cases there wasn’t even disciplinary action. In the case of Mr Rigg, as with so many other cases, police officers who have faced public criticism at inquests continue in their jobs as if nothing had happened.
Lack of disciplinary action is at least partly because the officers’ union, the powerful Police Federation, argue that no such action is justified unless a court first finds them guilty of an offence. Which brings me to the heart of the matter: the fact that there are only two cases in living memory where police officers have faced any criminal charges at all relating to the death of a black man in custody.
In both cases – Christopher Alder and Mikey Powell – they were charged with misfeasance in public office. In both cases officers walked free after the Alder case was dismissed by the judge, and in the Powell case not guilty verdicts were reached.
These cases are the exceptions. In most deaths in custody cases, no matter how controversial, the Crown Prosecution Service decides not to press charges despite serious criticism of police conduct at inquests, normally citing “insufficient evidence.”
Every time this happens it simply reinforces the suspicion that police officers are being protected and are being judged by different standards compared to ordinary citizens. And if the CPS were to decline to press charges against officers in the Rigg case it can only serve to undermine confidence in the justice system, particularly amongst large sections of the black community.
A jury of eleven peers, sitting through six weeks of evidence, delivered a verdict scathing of police. If the coroner, Dr Andrew Harris, had not ruled out an Unlawful Killing verdict, it is clear the jury would have gone with that. In the event, their narrative verdict was as close as one can get to ‘unlawful killing’ without the use of those two words.
On the basis of the evidence certain Brixton officers should be charged with some offence. Not to satisfy a desire for retribution, but simply on grounds that the inquests’ criticisms of police actions were so grave, and the consequences of police failings so tragic, that justice demands it.
Given the police reluctance to discipline officers in death in custody cases, let alone fire them, the courts are the only route available. Officers need to be held accountable in the dock, and I know the Rigg family are determined that this should happen. Three sides of A4 – the length of the inquest verdict – is not enough. Pieces of paper should never be enough.
The family, and society in general, need to know that where police wrongdoing has occurred that would normally lead to the imprisonment of ordinary citizens, that the justice system will also hold the police accountable for their actions.
The Sean Rigg case is not over; it’s just the start. We must increase the demands for justice for the family, and for all of us. Justice is not an inquest verdict, and it certainly isn’t a top cop telling us lessons have been learnt. Nothing will bring Sean Rigg back – or the many others who have passed in similar circumstances.
We need to see appropriate penalties against officers who helped kill Sean Rigg. Without justice there can be no peace.