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"I'm nobody's lapdog"

LORD ADEBOWALE: The peer hopes his policing review will lead to lasting change.

THERE ARE a few things Lord Victor Adebowale wants to make clear. This review is not just about deaths in police custody, and it’s not just about race. What it is about is mental health, and that is something the baron knows more than a little about.

However, when it comes to deaths in police custody, mental health is a key contributor as the cases of Brixton musician Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis show. And when it comes to mental health, black people are disproportionally over-represented. To that end, this review is something that holds tremendous importance for the African-Caribbean community.

It has been ordered by Met Police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, who leads a force with one of the worst track records of deaths in custody. The Met accounts for more than one in five deaths relating to police contact since 1990.

The sometimes toxic relationship between the black community and the police is something Lord Adebowale is acutely aware of.

“There is a fear of the mental health system, a fear that is justified based on the experiences particularly of African-Caribbean men,” he says matter-of-factly.

“From the system, there is an unjustified fear of black people which has driven quite outrageous prejudiced responses and treatment, in my personal opinion, and it needs to be rectified at every level.”

That doesn’t means he is full of praise for Hogan-Howe’s decision to address the matter, however.

“To say I’d commend the commissioner is going too far,” Lord Adebowale says.
“If you’re told 11 people have died as a direct result of police action in your force, you should be looking to sort that out. What he will find is that it’s a lot more than 11. Hogan-Howe is just doing his job. No more, no less.”

The panel’s findings will be presented in the second week of April, and will include a list of recommendations shaped by the stories of people who have been directly affected, including families who have lost loved ones.

Speaking on his appointment to lead the review, he reveals: “I don’t rush to these things; they’re very challenging, highly emotive issues. There’s opportunity for misunderstanding and lots of opportunity for public attack.

“But this is an issue that cannot be ignored… Who am I to say no?”

His involvement did come with a list of conditions: that he could choose the commission members who are entirely independent of the police, that the report would be made public and that the Met Commissioner would be the sole recipient.

The chief executive of social enterprise Turning Point also demanded his team have full access to all the Met’s files with , as he puts it, “no mucking around.”

“Anybody who knows me knows I am nobody’s lapdog,” he says. “The last thing I asked for was that for any recommendation we made that wasn’t adopted, there must be a full explanation from the commissioner as to why.”

After one day, Hogan-Howe agreed to the terms in writing.

The peer continues: “I can’t guarantee success; no one can, but we are focusing on practical shifts in Met Police practice.” He adds: “We’re into excuse removers. In other words, recommendations that are difficult for the leadership of the Met to say no to.”

The 50-year-old said a successful review would be one in which “the survivors of poor practice can see their concerns reflected in our recommendations.”

He added: “I want a report that is useful to the police, that has some impact on the understanding of the bobby on the beat on the way they work; a report that will shift people’s expectations of what to expect when they are in mental health crisis regardless of sex and creed and I want a report that mitigates against the worst that can happen when police are involved which is death or serious injury.”

One of the biggest challenges so far, was the discovery that, over the past five years, there are far more cases than the review panel originally thought.

As a result, it means more people to speak to and more experiences to report, to ensure the review is as comprehensive as possible.

“We can’t guarantee we have spoken to everybody, but we are doing the best we can” Lord Adebowale says.

“We are writing to every one of them and saying, ‘you might not have heard from us, but we’re here. Come and talk to us’. I have made myself available to meet families, and I have met families. They can write in. They can phone in. I believe they shouldn’t have to work hard, we should be going to their territory.”

By his own admission, he says the work is highly emotive. So how then does he keep his feelings out of the job he is charged to do?

“The work that is being done is not just tugging on heartstrings, it’s psychologically traumatic,” he says.

“I have shed tears; I have had to speak to my wife. You are listening to people who have lost wives, husbands, daughters, sons, brothers and sisters – its very hard stuff to hear.

“I don’t make a judgement. It’s just important that I record their stories to ensure that it’s analysed objectively against what best practice should be. That’s why we have a commission of experts.”

Despite Lord Adebowale’s confidence in the depth of his review, he has faced accusations that the measure is simply cosmetic after two leading groups – INQUEST and Black Mental Health UK – were not invited to sit on the commission.

“There is already an inquiry into deaths in custody underway led by Lord Harris, which INQUEST are involved in. Therefore, I felt it would be inappropriate to have them on this commission,” says Adebowale with the energy of a man not afraid of confrontation.

“I genuinely don’t understand that criticism. We have experts in black mental issues on this panel. Both Rowena Daw and Melba Wilson have strong track records on BME (black and minority ethnic) mental health. We have Patrick Vernon who is highly knowledgeable in this area as well as other experts who aren’t black. You don’t have to be black to understand black mental health, you just have to give a damn.

“What we have done instead is made ourselves available and invited them in to explain their views about what we should be looking at. Short of doing back flips, I have bent over backwards to invite people in. I apologise if I upset anyone, it’s a free country and they’re free to criticise. I just ask that those criticisms be based on fact.”

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