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We want to see real changes, say death in custody families

CALL FOR CHANGE: Death in Custody families at yesterday's march

GRIEVING FAMILIES and campaigners marched to Downing Street yesterday (Oct 27), calling for greater action over deaths in custody.

In chilly weather, they held their annual march from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street in London, carrying slogans asking tough questions and a list that not only remembered those who have died in custody but also suggestions to improve the system to prevent more deaths.

The group, which also included children, took their demands to the Prime Minister’s door, despite some authorities allowing far right group, the English Defence League (EDL), to hold a march in Westminster around the same time.

The annual march, organised by a coalition of death in custody families under the umbrella group United Families and Friends (UFFC) campaign, came one day after several bereaved families took their call for greater action to Parliament.

They met at the House of Commons on the same day an Inquest jury found that police failed to follow the correct procedures in the death of Jacob Michael. The young cage fighter, who was also pepper sprayed, died after being arrested and restrained by officers from the Runcorn Police Station, Cheshire, on August 22, 2011.

Among those who met were the families of Roger Sylvester, Sean Rigg, Mark Duggan, Azelle Rodney and more.

They were supported by Hillsborough family member Becky Shah, who lost her mother at the infamous football match, where an investigation has brought to light a top level police cover up that has already cost ex-police chief constable Sir Norman Bettison his job.


ROUNDTABLE OF GRIEF: The families share their pain, case updates and their demands at the House of Commons on October 26

One-by-one, they gave their stories, their faces creased in grief, and while the names of those who died were different, in many cases their stories were essentially the same - mostly black men, some very young, dying under controversial circumstances in the hands of the state, whether at police stations or in prisons or in mental health units or hospitals, through restraint or by being shot by officers.

Mark died after being shot by officers during a police operation last August in Tottenham, which later triggered such anger it sparked riots. So too had Azelle Rodney in 2005, shot six times after officers trailed and then forcibly stopped a car in which he was travelling.

Masters student Olaseni, taken to hospital after family members said he started behaving strangely, died in a mental health unit in September 2010. Witnesses claimed he was restrained by more than seven police officers, who were later called to the unit. Sean Rigg was also suffering a mental health crisis when he was restrained and died at Brixton Police Station in August 2008.


QUESTIONS REMAIN: Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis also died in state custody

For the families, the heartbreak was raw. At the meeting, organised by UFFC, they spoke about being often treated like ‘plebs’ by investigators even as they struggled to cope with losing their loved ones.

“It’s obviously been devastating to our family,” said Carol Duggan, Mark’s aunt, who the Voice she wants to see changes “in the government, changes in the police, changes within the IPCC (police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission). Those systems are all joined up and we are here not to try and dismantle it but to change it in favour of families, where we have more of a say … (Currently) We are treated like strangers.”


CONTROVERSIAL DEATH: Mark Duggan
They wanted changes such as:
•The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman should be placed on a statutory footing.
•Deaths in psychiatric detention and / or of those detained under the Mental Health Act must be subject to a system of properly funded investigation that is completely independent of the Health Service, UFFC said.
•Speedier and more independent IPCC investigations
•Reviews of use of force such as restraint. Ajibola Lewis, Olaseni’s mum, told the Voice : “I think the IPCC should look at restraint. Obviously, there are issues if people are dying as a result of restraint procedures…”
•Securing the often missing, grainy or faulty CCTV footage when these deaths happened and
•Suspending officers and interviewing officers immediately and separately after a death.

UFFC said among demands are that “Officers and officials directly involved in custody deaths are suspended until investigations are completed. Immediate interviewing of officers and all officials concerned with the death. Officers and officials should never be allowed to collude over their evidence and statements of fact."

Lewis added: “I would like to the IPCC to treat the police the way they would any other person. For example, when an incident happens, I think each officer should be separated and under caution, asked to write their statements separately. I don’t believe the police should be allowed to collude together and sit together and write it."


SUPPORT: Hillsborough group member Becky Shah talks about her grief at the House of Commons

The families also said:
•Prosecutions should automatically follow ‘unlawful killing’ verdicts. At Inquests and officers responsible for those deaths should face criminal charges, even if retired, they said.
• The authorities should stop using legislation to prevent families or the public accessing crucial information in their families’ cases, whether through redacted or black out documents, by trying to keep parts of inquests secret or by forcing the families to spend years fighting to even get an inquest
• The government should ensure all police vehicles have cameras.
• Death in custody families should get legal aid.

UFFC said: “There should be an automatic right to non means tested legal aid for families. There is a lack of funds for family legal representation at Inquests whilst officers and NHS staff get full legal representation from the public purse – this is unbalanced.”

The families also hope to see the issue raised and discussed in Parliament. Samantha Rigg-David, Sean’s sister, supported the demands. “The government needs to do something about deaths in custody,” she told the Voice on October 26.


ATTENDANCE: MP Chuka Umunna

The fight for justice is far from over, the families vowed during the meeting, which was attended by various campaigners, MP Jeremy Corbyn, who also sits on Parliament’s Justice Select Committee and MP Chuka Umunna. Umunna later pointed out there was a current pilot programme putting cameras in police vehicles now on in Lambeth, south London.

In addition, despite the challenges, the families said they were still determined to keep taking action, not only marching on Saturday but through legal channels.

For example, Roger Sylverster’s father, Rupert, told The Voice he has taken his son’s case to the European Court of Human Rights and is now waiting for a response.


STILL FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE: Rupert Sylvester

Susan Alexander was in week eight of the long awaited public inquiry, the first of its kind in England, into her son’s death. She told the packed room she is concerned with how much was being hidden from the public.

In addition, Mark Duggan’s and Olaseni Lewis’ families have been told there will be inquests into their deaths next year - Mark's in January and Olaseni’s will hopefully begin in March.
“We hope to get some justice,” Carol Duggan told the Voice .

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