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Independent Review into Deaths and Serious Incidents in Custody must be effective and lead to real change

Today, the Home Secretary, Theresa May MP, will announce an independent review into deaths and serious incidents in police custody. It is understood that the purpose of the review is to examine the procedures and processes surrounding such incidents, including the events leading up to them, the immediate aftermath, through to the conclusion of investigations, with a particular focus on the family liaison experience at all stages. The stated intention is for the review to identify 'areas for improvement and develop recommendations seeking to ensure appropriate, humane institutional treatment' following such incidents.

This announcement follows discussions between the Home Secretary, the families of Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis and INQUEST.  Mr Rigg and Mr Lewis both died after being restrained by police officers in 2008 and 2010 respectively.  In March 2015, following a meeting with the families, Ms May wrote to say she wanted to find "meaningful solutions" to the significant problems the families had raised with her.  

While welcoming this Review, INQUEST and the families of Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis are concerned to ensure that it is effective and leads to real change. To do this, it will need to have at its core a focus on the victims and the families of those who have died or been seriously injured in police custody.  Given that the full terms of reference have yet to be published, it is difficult to know whether this will be another review that fails to produce practical recommendations and whose report gathers dust. To meet the expectations of families and victims the review must produce a hard hitting, forward-focused report which addresses the wide range of issues that arise from such incidents, including those systemic problems that consistently recur. Accountability of those involved in such cases is essential to restore public confidence in the police, the IPCC and CPS.

Responding to the announcement, Deborah Coles, Co-Director of INQUEST, said:

“For the review to be effective bereaved families, their lawyers and INQUEST will need to play an integral role in the review, and the Reviewer will need to take full account of their views and experiences. It must also address why so many previous recommendations from reviews, inquiries and inquests have not been acted upon. It is too early to tell if this is more about a public relations exercise than a real attempt to bring about effective systemic change and the necessary accountability of police officers."

Marcia Rigg-Samuel, the oldest sister of Sean Rigg, said:

“Families of those who have died in police custody have for too long been badly treated by state agents, only to be faced with intrusive means assessments of their extended family when applying for funding for legal representation at the inquest. Meanwhile, state agents are automatically represented by teams of lawyers. There is a clear need for a radical overhaul of how the whole system works following a death in police custody, and I hope that the independent review will address this, as well as the root causes of these avoidable deaths and ensuring accountability for those who fail in their duties to members of the public."

Ajibola Lewis, the mother of Olaseni Lewis, said:

“For our part, we are surprised that the proposed review, its purpose and its scope is being announced without any prior consultation with us or other families in our position.  If the review is going to be more than an exercise in public relations, and if it is to enjoy the confidence of families in our position, it must find a meaningful way to learn from and reflect our experiences. We find deep seated and repeated failures on the part of all of the agencies of the state to whom we look to take responsibility to investigate and prevent such deaths, including those concerned within the senior management of our police service, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Coroners Courts. We find that these agencies of the state do not seem to understand that if they listen to us, if they enable us to take part properly in the process, they would allow us to help them achieve a more effective investigative process and more effective outcomes – that this would be in the best interests of all concerned, families as well as the officers whose actions resulted in the deaths of our loved ones.

If the review is going to achieve any semblance of success, it must look at the reasons behind these failures in the machinery of accountability – the process by which officers are seen to be accountable to the rule of law, so that the police service and the criminal justice system at large may enjoy the confidence of all of us in the public.”

Listen here to this morning's BBC Radio 4 today programme interview with Deborah Coles and Marcia Rigg-Samuel.

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