Death in Custody: Police Shame or 'Excited Delirium'?
Imagine the following scenario: a police officer’s home is broken into by a gang of eleven youths, who chase him into the street and beat him to death while his watching family beg them to stop. There would be national outrage, the perpetrators would face lengthy jail sentences and the Prime Minister would be on television talking about Britain’s broken society and feral gang culture.
What if the uniforms were swapped, and the vicious gang was composed of police officers? We don’t have to imagine this scenario: it is precisely what happened to 25-year-old Jacob Michael, who dialled 999 in a state of panic on 22nd August 2011 and two hours later was pronounced dead. And what about the consequences? The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation is still ongoing but if you think those responsible for Michael’s death will be brought to justice I would refer you to one stark figure. Since 1969 there have been over a thousand deaths in police custody and not a single police officer has been successfully prosecuted. Not only is brutal treatment of detainees systemic in our police forces, there is a systemic failure to recognise and punish it.
What we do already know from the IPCC investigation is deeply concerning and represents an Orwellian obfuscation of the truth which is becoming increasingly prevalent in investigations of police brutality. On Wednesday it was announced that the pathologist investigating the case has identified the cause of death as ‘excited delirium’, a disturbingly unscientific term which is not found in any medical textbook and is not recognised as a possible cause of death either by the Department of Health or the World Health Organisation. Never mind the torn liver, the broken ribs or the eyewitness accounts of Michael being kicked and punched by police officers before being thrown in the back of a police van “like a piece of meat” – no, he was probably just a bit over-excited wasn’t he? This is victim blaming at its most insidious.
Excited delirium is increasingly being cited as a cause of death in similar cases but try searching for deaths from the condition outside of police custody and you will struggle to find anything. Though we cannot rule it out as a factor in the deaths of detainees there is something more than a little shady about an ill-defined psychological condition, diagnosed retrospectively, which only rears its head when the sufferer is being detained by police officers.
I might have a little more faith in the IPCC’s conclusions if they had a history of rigorous investigation. Sadly this is not the case. In November 2011 two members of a community reference group set up to monitor the IPCC’s investigation into the shooting of Mark Duggan resigned in protest at the shoddiness of the inquiry, describing it as “tainted” by bias and inaccuracies.
Likewise, the investigation into the death last year of reggae singer Smiley Culture aka David Emmanuel, who supposedly stabbed himself in the chest whilst making a cup of tea for police officers, is so full of lacunae and discrepancies that it is surely nothing more than a whitewash. Why were no fingerprints found on the knife? Why did the police officers handcuff Emmanuel after he had stabbed himself, as they claim? And why did the inquiry treat the officers as witnesses rather than suspects? This shameful masquerade of an investigation shows how far we have to go to secure a truly accountable police force.
The trial of PC Simon Harwood for the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in 2009 could prove a watershed in this struggle. Harwood will face trial in June this year, but even reaching this stage of proceedings looked unlikely after the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to press charges. An inquest into his death only commenced following a sustained campaign in the media and by Tomlinson’s family. Is that really what it takes for justice to be served?
A robust system of prosecuting police officers involved in abuse of detainees is essential not just to provide some sense of peace and justice to the families of the victims, but also to challenge the culture of impunity in the police force. Each suspicious death which goes unpunished is a license to police officers to act as they please, a signal that they are above the law which they are supposed to enforce.
This article first appeared in Edinburgh’s The Student Newspaper