In 2008, a vulnerable 40-year-old Black man who had suffered a psychotic relapse was left to die on the floor of Brixton police station. He had last taken medication for his mental ill health two months preceding his death. The South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLAM) – the mental health centre entrusted with his care – failed to carry out a mental health assessment. They failed to contact his family, and failed to check up on him from 11th August, when he was exhibiting troubling behaviours consistent with a mental health crisis. Arrested, handcuffed, restrained, and neglected by police officers on 21st August, he died of cardiac arrest.
Now, eleven years after his tragic death, the five Metropolitan police officers involved have been cleared of allegations of gross misconduct. His name was Sean Rigg. He shouldn’t be remembered like this. He should be remembered as the talented musician and rapper he was, the well-liked and gentle man his family and friends recall, a mentor and volunteer in his local area.
We should be furious. As the Rigg family have repeated time and time again: Sean was a fit and healthy man, and he died shortly after being picked up by police. In 2012, an inquest jury at Southwark Coroner’s Court variously described the plethora of oversights and failures by SLAM and the Met as “unacceptable”, “inappropriate”, and “unsuitable”. The force applied to Sean was called “unnecessary”; it “more than minimally contributed” to Sean’s death. He was held in the prone position and leant on for at least eight minutes with an unwarranted amount of body weight. As his physical health declined in the back of the police van and he lost consciousness, officers were recorded speculating as to whether he was “faking it”. One of the counts of his arrest was the theft of a passport. It was his own, and he carried it when he was vulnerable like this. Sean was not just restrained – he was brutalised, and then was left unattended and handcuffed. And during the 2012 inquest, Metropolitan police officer PC John Rees was revealed to have lied in court in what was regarded by many as a deliberate cover up of police failings – an insult to justice.
So not only should we be furious; we should be demanding accountability. The charity Inquest’s statistics show that, to date, there have been 1700 deaths in police custody or otherwise following contact with the police in England and Wales since 1990. Furthermore, BAME deaths in custody where mental health-related issues feature are nearly two times greater than white deaths in custody. Are the perpetrators being prosecuted? Are these patterns of state violence going to change?
The evidence shows that this isn’t the case. Justice hasn’t been delivered for Sean Rigg and his family, and this isn’t anomalous: it’s inherent within the absence of state accountability. Ken Fero, director of Who Polices the Police?, drew attention to the Independent Police Complaints Commission – ostensibly created to increase trust in the police – writing in 2017 that the IPCC “have investigated 827 such deaths. The number of successful prosecutions of police officers for these deaths is 0.” Arguably, much of the attention given to this case would be absent if not for the Riggs’ tireless campaigning, doing the work our judicial system should be doing.
When is it incompetence and when is it collusion? Who will face justice for Sean Rigg’s death? Or, for that matter, the deaths of Rashan Charles, Darren Cumberbatch, Christopher Alder, Roger Sylvester, or countless more? In June 2017, 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire, most of them BAME and poor; out of the 203 households of survivors, 52 are in temporary accommodation and 68 are in emergency accommodation nearly two years after the tragedy. Police have stated that charges in the Grenfell criminal probe are unlikely to be brought before the end of 2021. No individual or organisation has been prosecuted thus far, and people in social housing still reside in hazardous buildings like Grenfell. This was one of the UK’s most terrible modern disasters. The state response has been nothing short of callous.
Less well-known issues represent the same troublesome theme. Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, which houses a majority female non-white population, has been plagued by allegations of sexual abuse, sexual and racial intimidation by staff, denial of legal representation and healthcare, and detention of children. Last year, 120 detainees began a hunger strike to protest the inadequate conditions. Asylum seekers, many with traumatic backgrounds, are held indefinitely, deported without warning. They are not criminals, but they’re treated like prison inmates. An average of more than one detainee suicide attempt every day in 2015 was recorded across the UK’s immigration removal centres – just a small indication of these institutions’ negligence.
Are BAME lives so disposable in Britain today? All these issues are political; all of them are underrepresented in our societal consciousness. The silence is deafening.