JAMES HERBERT INQUEST VERDICT: FAMILY STATEMENT
26 April 2013
On June 10th 2010 at 7.00pm our son James was in a distressed state running and walking in and out of traffic on the Bath Road, Wells, about 400 metres from his home. One and a half hours later he lay dying naked on a concrete floor of a police cell at Yeovil police station, having been subjected to a restraint involving four police officers and three members of the public. He had purportedly been detained under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act, where the purpose is to be taken to a place of safety for a mental health assessment. He was in fact taken on a forty to forty five minute journey where he lay, in the words of one of the members of the public who helped restrain him, “trussed up like a chicken”. He had been handcuffed with his hands behind him and with two sets of limb restraints on his legs, one at his ankles the other around his thighs. He was then wedged in a cramped space in the cage of a police van on a warm summer evening. He was wearing a thick winter coat. Nobody sat in the cage with him, or even in the back passenger seats, where at least he could have been watched properly. By the time he arrived at Yeovil police station he was unresponsive, and even then there was a delay until an ambulance was called. The CCTV pictures of our dying son being the subject of a cell extraction tell the story eloquently of the catastrophic errors that were made by many of the police officers involved and the disregard and neglect shown to his welfare until it was far too late.
James had mental health issues and whilst there is no evidence at all that he was violent prior to the restraint, we believe that his struggle against the restraint in Wells, and so we are led to believe in the van, were crucial factors in his death. No person should have been subjected to that journey, let alone a mentally ill one in a highly distressed state. It was inhumane.
James did not have a malicious bone in his body and we miss him terribly. He will never have a chance to overcome his problems, fulfil his potential, fall in love, have children of his own, and enjoy football, the internet, parties and talk endlessly about the meaning of life. His life and his future were stolen from him.
While we do not believe that the police officers involved in James’ restraint and detention on that day deliberately set out with malicious intent towards him, we believe that they made very serious errors of judgement in the restraint of him and then failed to appreciate and act upon the peril they had put him in as a result of that restraint and the struggle that ensued, despite being trained in these matters by the Avon and Somerset Constabulary. We believe that if the situation on Bath Road in Wells had been de-escalated, as it could and should have been, James would be alive today. We believe that had emergency medical assistance been summoned quickly after James had been restrained or even if he had been taken immediately to the Accident and Emergency Department of the closest hospital, as could and should have happened, he would probably be alive today, and even if an ambulance had been called when he first arrived at Yeovil, when he was so clearly unresponsive, he would have had a good chance of surviving the ordeal he was put through.
Since losing James we have had a burning need for the truth. The many families who over the years have lost loved ones in the hands of the State will understand this. The most shameful thing of all is that the police officers involved, and in our opinion Avon and Somerset Constabulary, were far more concerned about absolving themselves from criticism than from owning up to and thereby learning from their terrible errors. If the police want the public to have confidence in them, then they need above all to learn that this is not the way to treat human beings. By making sure they had their story straight before we were told that James had died, which in common with most deaths of this type was more than four hours later, and by a failure to acknowledge their errors of judgement and then in some instances to attempt to hide or “spin” the facts of what happened and then to put those errors in the best possible light, their behaviour was unacceptable by any measure. This is deep and pernicious institutional corruption. Yeovil hospital staff contacted Avon and Somerset Police around eleven pm on the night James died to ask if the family would be coming to see him or should they transfer him to the mortuaryThe place where a body is taken after its removal from the place of death.. They were told to transfer him as the family wouldn’t be visiting. How could we? We were not told that he had died until 1.30am. We were denied the opportunity to see James and had to wait for six days to identify and view him. It breaks our heart to think that the hospital staff might have thought that James’ family did not care enough to come to see him.
There are several examples of some police officers lying in their statements or at the inquest under oath. We may have been able to forgive Avon and Somerset Police had they acted honourably. They never gave us a chance as you can only forgive if the truth has been admitted. We were again denied this basic right, the comfort of forgiveness.
We would like to thank the jury at James’ inquest for their attention over a very intense few weeks.
We would also like to thank Beth Handley and Alison Gerry, our solicitor and counsel for helping us get to the truth. You have our ever-lasting gratitude and love. You are good people and we are proud that you helped us and you did James justice through the inquest by your hard work and professionalism.
We would like to thank INQUEST and our case worker Victoria McNally for their help and support. INQUEST is a real lifeline for people who have lost loved ones and they have helped us practically and emotionally. They are worthy of much more funding than they receive to carry on their excellent work in increasing understanding in this area and in the way they support bereaved families.
The IPCC first investigated the circumstances of James’ death and we were treated well by them personally, in that they conducted their investigation in a transparent way and showed us kindness and empathy. Their investigation picked up several important issues, although we also believe it missed some important points. We will be happy to engage with them with our opinions, the positives and the negatives, as they perform an extremely important function in these matters.
To all the other families who have lost loved ones in the hands of the State, you have our love. We are with you. Let us make sure that we can give their lives some meaning by changing things for the better. Getting justice for James for us has always been mostly about making sure that nobody else can die in the same way.
Finally we would like to quote Jennifer Edwards:
“The beauty of life is, while we cannot change what is done, we can see it, understand it, learn from it and change. So that every new moment is spent not in regret, guilt, fear or anger, but in wisdom, understanding and love”
Avon and Somerset Police, please “see it, understand it, learn from it and change”.
James, we so wish you were still with us and we miss you more than we can express. We will never forget you and we hope that your tragic death may help to make it a safer world for others, particularly for the vulnerable and those struggling with mental illness.
‘I was already working with INQUEST, which is the organisation who monitor deaths in custody, and at one AGM I told the audience that what happened to these people [killed in police custody like Chistopher Alder, Roger Sylvester and many others] could happen to any of us. And then a couple of years later, I was standing in front of them again but now it had happened to my cousin. So my family and me were now “users” of Inquest. It shows you that none of us are immune – here am I, Benjamin Zephaniah, patron of INQUEST and client of INQUEST at the same time.’
– Benjamin Zephaniah