Deaths in Custody

Page updated Thursday 22nd May 2013 at 1245

Between 1990-2011 a total of 980 people died in police custody. During that period only one police officer has ever been successfully prosecuted, although criminal trials were recommended for thirteen officers based on “relatively strong evidence of misconduct or neglect.”

We feature here two exceptionally sad cases in which West Yorkshire Police have played a significant role. The first case highlights the wilful neglect by West Yorkshire custody officers, at its notorious Wood Street police station in Wakefield, that ultimately led to the death of Keith Mark Camm (click here).

The second is the cause célèbre, Christopher Ibukunle Alder, who was killed by the shocking and neglectful treatment of four Humberside Police officers. West Yorkshire Police, led by the thoroughly discredited Supt John Holt, played their full part in failing to deliver justice for the Alder family with a woeful external investigation into Chris Alder’s death (read full story here). Chris’s sister, Janet Alder (pictured top left), has become one of the best known justice campaigners in the country over the past 15 years.

Remarkably, not one single officer was convicted as a result of these deaths. No officer was disciplined by Humberside Police in connection with the Alder death or by West Yorkshire Police in the case of Keith Mark Camm. Only one officer faced a disciplinary hearing in the case of the latter, and Humberside Police astonishingly exonerated all their officers in their own internal disciplinary inquiry. One of the policemen principally involved in Chris Alder’s death, PC Neil Blakey, is still a serving officer. A credit to the Force and the police service.

Both Chris Alder’s and Mark Camm’s families are represented by the formidable and hugely respected solicitor and court advocate, Ruth Bundey (pictured top right). A Criminal Law partner in Leeds firm Ison Harrison, Ruth is best known for her expertise in providing advice, assistance and representation at Coroner’s Inquests following institutional death in custody.

The single successful prosecution in the UK related to the death of Craig Boyd in March 2004. Boyd hung himself with a shoelace in his cell at St Mary’s Wharf police station, Derby. The custody suite warden, PC David Stoll, was watching the Disney film Finding Nemo with two other officers at the time and custody records had been falsified to show visits by officers to the cells “that were not substantiated by video evidence.” Derbyshire Police officer, Stoll, was found guilty of misconduct in a public office and was sentenced to six months imprisonment suspended for one year.

A historic case that attracted nationwide attention at the time was the brutal persecution at the hands of two senior police officers and subsequent death of vagrant David Oluwale. It was a case that rocked the entire city of Leeds and it’s local police force back in 1969 when the general approach to black people in the UK tended towards racism. Leeds, for example, still operated “no blacks” policies in some of its best known pubs and publicly funded institutions such as hostels and swimming pools also operated colour bars. The Oluwale story rose again to national prominence as a result of Kester Aspden‘s iconic 2007 book Nationality:Wog  – The Hounding of David Oluwale. Many believe the deaths of many black people in, or following, police custody since have their roots in the Oluwale case and it is a fact that a disproportionately large number who suffer this fate are black. A disturbing number, such as the Alder case above, also have racist allegations attached to them. For the full Oluwale story click on this link here.

In 1999 Judge Gerald Butler criticised the Crown Prosecution Service for failing to take action over a number of deaths in police custody. He made several recommendations to improve accountability, and expressed “unease” over the current system. In a December 2010 report, the IPCC suggested that juries were “unwilling to convict police officers.”

The IPCC study, which covered deaths in custody in England and Wales between 1998 and 2010, concluded that in 16 cases restraint by officers was the direct cause of death, of which four were classed as “positional asphyxia.” The majority of deaths were ruled as occurring due to natural causes, many involving drug or alcohol abuse, and the authors called on the Home Office  and Department of Health “to pilot facilities with medical care to replace police cells.”

Deborah Coles (pictured top centre), co-director of the charity and campaign group INQUEST said: “The study points to alarming failures in the care of vulnerable detainees suffering from mental health, drug and alcohol problems, many of whom should have been diverted from police custody.”

According to the report “fewer than half of detainees booked into custody who should have been risk assessed were actually assessed,” while “incidents where custody officers had not conducted proper checks, or thoroughly roused detainees to check their state, were prevalent.” Custody officers and staff also lacked basic first aid training. Mike Franklin, the former IPCC Commissioner, is quoted as saying: “What emerges most prominently from the report is the medical and mental health needs of a large number of people the police arrest,” and questioned whether custody “is the best place for a large number of the people the police deal with.”

On 1 September 2011 the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 was extended to include all deaths in police custody suites, prison cells, mental health detention facilities and Young Offenders Institutions.