Police watchdog just issued an ‘unprecedented’ apology to the family of a man who died in custody

Banner at UFFC rally saying Justice for Sean Rigg
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The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has issued a letter of apology for the “distress, anxiety and upset” its investigations caused to the family of Sean Rigg, who was killed in police custody in 2008. However, the first anniversary of another police killing shows that the IOPC’s apology is hollow.

Failure of accountability

Sean died in custody at Brixton police station following an ordeal that saw five Metropolitan Police officers wrestling with him, putting him in a prone position for eight minutes, and laying him face-down in a police van. They also failed to call an ambulance after officers had to carry him to be placed, unresponsive, in a caged area. Sean was experiencing a schizophrenic mental health break at the time.

The actions of officers on the day, along with their stories not adding up, led to an inquest. In 2012, an inquest jury deemed the officers’ restraint “unnecessary and unsuitable”. However, in December 2017 the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided against charges for the five officers involved.

In April 2018, the IOPC then directed the Metropolitan Police to bring gross misconduct charges against the officers involved. A six-week hearing in early 2019 on these charges resulted in a police misconduct panel dismissing all of the charges.

As a result, to date, nobody has faced penalties for Sean’s death.

Secret payouts to officers

The IOPC’s predecessor, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), issued an apology to Sean’s family in 2013. It came after an independent review criticised its actions. However, the latest apology is much wider-ranging.

After the watchdog dropped its gross misconduct charges, three of the officers involved received compensation and apologies from the IOPC. However, these were issued privately. Marcia Rigg, Sean’s sister – who has led the campaign for justice over his death – only found out as a result of a Police Federation news article in May 2023. As a result, she said the news was “extremely upsetting” to hear.

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This led Tom Whiting, acting general of the IOPC, to write to Marcia on 21 August. In it, Whiting said he was “sorry” for not “informing [Marcia] of the claim at a much earlier stage”. He also reiterated the apology for delays in the initial investigation, and gave a fresh apology for delays in subsequent investigations. Whiting concluded with an ‘unreserved apology’.

‘Fundamentally flawed, institutionally racist, and a public scandal’

INQUEST, an organisation which supports families of people killed in police custody, described Whiting’s letter as an “unprecedented unreserved apology”. Meanwhile, Marcia said Sean’s death continues to haunt her, and used Whiting’s letter as a chance to push for similar accountability across the board:

Fifteen years since my brother Sean Rigg died at Brixton police station on the evening of 21st August 2008, the never-ending trauma and painful impact continues to haunt me, through no fault of my own or my family. 

In my view and that of many families and the public generally, there continues to be zero confidence in the investigative and judicial process, no justice even with damming evidence and countless reviews, proving that the whole judicial system in the UK is fundamentally flawed; institutionally racist; corrupt and a national public scandal.

On 15th May 2023, I became aware via a Police Federation news article that three officers involved in the restraint of my brother received compensation and an apology from the IOPC for the IPCC’s delays, which was almost 11 years by the time of the decision in March 2019.  It was extremely upsetting for me to read this, not least because the compensation was paid in secret. 

I appreciate these apologies and trust that the IOPC will now consider informing families and complainants of any similar compensation to officers by the IOPC as a matter of course, as a courtesy and in the wider public interest.

Daniel Machover, Marcia’s solicitor, echoed the need for the IOPC to go further. He said the IOPC “needs to go beyond this unprecedented and very welcome apology” and call for an end to prolonged prone restraint. He also said that the IOPC’s refusal to properly investigate officers has fed into a culture of “absolute impunity”.

Debra Coles, INQUEST director, said:

Fifteen years on and with no one properly held to account, this case provides a stark reminder of how the mechanisms for holding police to account are not fit for purpose. All those involved, the IOPC, CPS, Police federation and the Met Police should be ashamed.

Black men continue to die after police use of dangerous restraint and there remains a culture of impunity and failure to enact meaningful systemic change.  Police forces and the IOPC must consistently hold officers to account for the use of prolonged prone restraint well known to carry serious risks. Anything else is a licence to seriously injure or kill.

Chris Kaba

To underscore this point, the publicaton of the IOPC’s apology comes just days after the first anniversary of the killing of Chris Kaba. Officers with the Metropolitan Police shot and killed Kaba in Streatham on 5 September 2022.

A year later, Kaba’s family are still awaiting answers over the killing, including the matter of the disappearance of his watch. Moreover, in a situation reflecting that of Sean Rigg, the IOPC still hasn’t brought any legal action against the officers involved in Kaba’s killing. His family issued a statement via INQUEST saying:

We believe that it was possible within six months of Chris being killed both for the IOPC to complete a well-resourced and effective criminal investigation and for the CPS to provide us with a charging decision.

 It is almost unbelievable that a year on we still wait for answers. It is agonising not knowing the CPS decision.

 It is unacceptable that we have been failed by the CPS, which has not completed its task urgently or in a timely fashion.

The family has asked the public to join them on a march from New Scotland Yard tomorrow, 9 September, at midday.

Just one conviction

Sean and Chris’s deaths are, sadly, far from a unique incident. According to INQUEST, 1870 people across England and Wales have died in police custody or following contact with officers since 1990. A majority of these deaths occurred in custody, although shootings, pursuits, and road traffic incidents are also represented. A disproportionately high number of these are people of Black, Asian and Minoritised Ethnicities (BAME).

There’s been only one prosecution of an officer over a death in police custody since 1990. Benjamin Monk was found guilty in June 2021 of killing former football star Dalian Atkinson. However, Monk was convicted of manslaughter, not murder.

Despite Whiting’s apology to Marcia Rigg, Kaba’s case shows that the IOPC hasn’t learned a thing. Police violence – particularly against Black people – continues across the country thanks to the ‘absolute impunity’ officers experience. Until that changes, the IOPC’s apologies ring hollow.

Featured image via 4WardEverUK/Flickr

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  • Show Comments
    1. Thank you for this article.

      The IOPC, the Met, and all the rest of it needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up in a grassroots process involving all communities, in particular communities historically over-policed.

      1. That’s an interesting suggestion. What if many communities have policing interests that are inherently in opposition? The wealthy community and the working class are at war. Hadn’t you noticed? So any conceivable police force in a capitalist society will place the values of the wealthy at Number 1, and those of the working class… nowhere.

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