Commitment to race needed to allay death inquiry concern

Monday, 24 August 2015


National concern for black Briton
Theresa_May_-_Brixton_June_2015Deaths in custody has been an issue of national concern to black Briton for many decades now, and Theresa May's announcement last week of an independent inquiry into deaths in police custody has made it clear that this has become a priority for the whole nation.

A Tory Home Secretary choosing to announce an independent inquiry into deaths in custody in Brixton is undoubtedly an indication of the government's recognition that this is an issue that disproportionally effects black people and has certainly got the communities attention, however this is nothing new.

For the past four decades we have seen high profile inquiries and endless coroners reports after disturbing and preventable deaths of black men after contact with the police or in other custodial settings. All these reports came with 'hard hitting' recommendations and widespread media coverage heralding new reforms. But in reality nothing has changed.

Inquiry fatigue

Janet_Alder_leading_the_vigil_outside_Queens_Gardens_police_station_HullThis quite justifiably has led to inquiry fatigue and concerns that this may be more about rhetoric than making change a tangible reality, particularly for black Briton.

Of all politicians that the Diaspora have seen over the years Theresa May has proved to be a surprising ally on issues that other politicians who are in a position to speak out on have remained silent. As she said in her speech last week she is not a Home Secretary to shy away from the 'thornier issues' that her predecessors chose to remain untouched.

Indeed, while the treatment of black people who come in contact with mental health services has been sidelined by other government departments, the joint summit that the Home Office held with BMH UK on policing and mental health last year placed the experience of black people who all too often come contact with the police when needing care as the central theme of this event.

Her recognition of the role that families have played over the decades in pursuit of justice for the loss of loved ones by making sure that the experience of families of those who have died in custody will be at the heart of the inquiry is a good one. She has said that to this end the charity INQUEST will have the formal to provide a liaison function with affected families.

Family insight is important as it is not possible to gain an insight into the pain and devastation that anyone one who is a victim of such a bereavement goes through, but what is equally important, particularly given the subject of this inquiry is to look at look at race, and the of the UK's African Caribbean communities experience with a specific focus on those who are forced to use mental health services, as it is this group that continue to disproportunately  lose their lives in these settings, at yet another tragic case of a 31-year-old in Wandsworth on the 5th June, just last month shows.

Expertise on race lies with the community 

Kingsleys_Brother_in_Law_and_Sister_in_Law_-_Matilda_MacAttram_-_BMH_UK_by_David_Merry_UFFC_March_2012This is not an area of expertise any bereaved family member should be expected to to be well versed in, particularly given the long and quite complicated history of this issue, and it has never been the remit of the charity INQUEST.

However race needs to be included on as a priority on a par with that taken of ensuring bereaved families are at the core of this work, not included in the terms of reference.

It is the step that needs to be taken to secure this communities confidence, as they are the ones who have year after year demonstrated and marched alongside these families in their fight for justice, and it is the campaigners within these ranks who have been working in the arena of human rights and race equality that have the policy expertise of race and the issue of deaths in custody.

Theresa May's commitment to addressing many of the injustices faced by black Briton have gone further than any Home Secretary to date, but if we are to believe that this latest announcement is anything more than rhetoric, then race and black Briton, just like the concerns of bereaved families needs to be at the core of this inquiry. Including this in the terms of reference will not do.

By Matilda MacAttram, director Black Mental Health UK, Fellow, United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.

Copyright © 2015 Matilda MacAttram All rights reserved.

For information on obtaining permission to resue this work email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission, where published the authors byline, biography and copyright notice are retained in their entireity.

This article was first published in The Voice Newspaper in June 2015. 


Campaigners dismiss 'yet another' mental health deaths review

By John Pring

Home_Office_2Human rights campaigners have criticised plans for an inquiry that will examine lessons from the deaths of people in mental distress in police custody, because they say the government already knows what action it needs to take.

The call came from Black Mental Health UK (BMH UK), which has repeatedly raised concerns about the number of mental health service-users from the UK's African-Caribbean community who have died in police custody, and has particularly criticised the dangerous and often fatal use of restraint on people with mental illness.

The independent review of deaths and serious incidents in custody was announced in a speech in south London by home secretary Theresa May.

It will examine procedures and processes surrounding deaths and serious incidents in police custody, including the availability and effectiveness of mental healthcare facilities, the use of restraint and the training of officers.

It will also "identify areas for improvement and develop recommendations to ensure appropriate, humane institutional treatment when such incidents occur".

But it will not reopen and reinvestigate past cases and will not "interfere" with ongoing inquests, investigations or Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) reviews.

Hundreds of recommendations - nothing has changed

man_holding_his_eyesMatilda MacAttram, BMH UK's director, said: "What is another inquiry going to do? They know the problems already.

"The recommendations have been made in the hundreds. How many more recommendations do we need?"

She added: "There is a sense of inquiry fatigue among many in Britain's black communities as we have seen a raft of inquiries with supposedly 'hard hitting' recommendations after almost every high-profile death of a black man in custody for the past 40 years – but nothing has changed.

"What we need to see is justice, and what that looks like is ending the practice of using lethal levels of force with no accountability – do we need another inquiry to tell us that?"

She said there were clear problems already identified within the criminal justice and mental health systems, such as police officers – often in riot gear – routinely entering psychiatric wards to restrain patients.

And she pointed to a string of inquiries into the use of restraint that have been carried out by the police, the Department of Health, and the IPCC.

She said the authorities had been "looking into it" for the last four decades, and that she would rather funding be spent providing community-based places of safety, crisis care or talking therapies.

Kicking this into the long grass - activity but no real action

IPCC_deaths_following_police_contact_2014-15MacAttram said: "The people at the top know how the system works. An inquiry is like kicking something into the long grass for 12 months."

She said there were key measures the government could take instead of holding another inquiry.

One is to ensure that the £15 million funding announced before the election to provide new health-based places of safety – to ensure people in mental distress are not kept in police custody – should be ring-fenced, or given direct to charities to resource community-based places of safety.

MacAttram believes the new funding will otherwise disappear into the black hole of over-stretched local health budgets.

She said: "Right now every provider has a health-based place of safety, but they are not staffed."

Another measure that could be taken is to outlaw the use of police officers on mental health wards, and instead to resource mental health services properly.

And every time police officers are called onto a mental health ward, there should be an investigation by the IPCC, she said.

Meanwhile, new IPCC figures show the number of deaths in or following police custody in England and Wales rose from 11 to 17 in 2014-15. Eight of the 17 people who died had mental health problems.

There were also 69 apparent suicides following police custody, a fall of just one on 2013-14, but an increase of 30 since 2011-12.

These figures – released on the same day as May's speech – do not include deaths where police were called in to help medical staff to restrain individuals who were not under arrest.

IPCC chair Dame Anne Owers said that IPCC investigations into deaths in or following police custody "have too often exposed the same issues", such as inadequate risk assessments; token checks on a person in custody; insufficient handovers between custody staff; and a failure to recognise or properly deal with people with mental health concerns.

This article was first published on The Disability News Service in June 2015.

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