Deaths In The Cells

Since the riots throughout the UK’s cities last summer, there has been increasing attention from both the media and the public regarding police brutality. Mark Duggan and Reggae star Smiley Culture being high profile victims. The issue has most recently resurfaced due to the ongoing investigation surrounding Jacob Michael’s death, which is due to reach a conclusion this month. Michael, 25, died last year after being restrained by police. The public have been particularly concerned by the fact that Michael called the police himself, apparently in need of help. His father commented: ‘As far as I’m concerned, if the police didn’t treat my lad the way they did, he would be here today. He did nothing wrong, he hadn’t committed any crime, he rang the police for help’.

The number of deaths in police custody is certainly a controversial topic. Since 1969, there have been 1000 reported cases of deaths in police custody, but zero convictions of a police officer for involvement. While this may initially sound quite high, comments from the Guardian’s website show mixed views amongst the public, with one commenter stating: ‘1000 sounds a lot, but over 40 years it’s only 25 a year on average. At the alcohol and drug-addled fringe of society that police have to deal with, that’s not a lot’. Yet another comments that ‘It seems statistically highly unlikely, than in a 1,000 such cases there were no circumstances that warranted a successful prosecution of a police officer for involvement in a death in custody’.

What is particularly unsettling about Michael’s case, however, is that there has been no clear report explaining how he died. Cause of death has been put down to ‘excited delirium’, a controversial term which is often used in police reports concerning deaths in police custody, but gives no specifics, such as bodily injuries. Furthermore, the term is not recognized by the British Medical Association, which brings us to question why it is deemed an acceptable cause of death by the police. In a report compiled by retired judge, Thomas Braidwood, he concluded that ‘the term was uniformly rejected by medical professionals and was being used to cover up actual causes of deaths in custody, especially those involving excessive restraint’. Braidwood’s account may hold truth, but its worth considering that excited delirium includes ‘symptoms’ of bizarre and/or aggressive behavior, shouting, paranoia, panic, violence towards others, whether or not the term itself is medically sound the ‘symptoms’ associated do indicate dangerous behaviors which would require severe restraint from police. But does that really excuse his death?

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), who are currently undertaking the investigation into Michael’s case, admitted that they had investigated a number of cases involving ‘excited delirium’ in the past. ‘We are aware there is an ongoing debate within medical circles about the condition, but the IPCC does not have the medical expertise to comment on such a matter’. This statement, rather worryingly, brings one to question who will comment on this issue, if not the IPCC.

The IPCC does, however, accept that deaths in police custody of any kind can result in a lack of trust of the police from the public, stating ‘Deaths in or following police custody are a controversial area of policing… They impact on trust and confidence in the police, particularly in black and minority ethnic communities.’

As the media try desperately to uncover a cause for the riots throughout England’s cities last year, we must consider the possibly that the public’s perception of the police (particularly within minority groups), is at least partly to blame for certain instances of crime. This lack of perceived justice is of course aggravated by incidents such as the case of Jacob Michael (particularly because of his ethnicity), and, along with all the usual components (such as bad parenting, unemployment, poverty etc.), may continue to cause unrest. Whatever the verdict, it will be interesting to see the outcome of Michael’s case this month, and if the result affects the country’s methods of policing, and if the police are willing to provide more transparency into their procedures.

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