Thursday, July 2, 2009

Another death, another IPCC failure

The IPCC's inadequate response to Faisal al-Ani's 2005 death in police custody leaves little hope for the family of Ian Tomlinson

An inquest jury has returned their verdict as to how my clients' father, Faisal al-Ani, came by his death while in the custody of Essex police on 31 July 2005. They found that he died of an acute cardiac dysrhythmia during a period of prolonged restraint by police against a background of, among other things, acute psychotic illness and heart problems. While they found that the force used on him was appropriate, they found that insufficient account was taken of his physical welfare.

Faisal al-Ani was 43 and a father of six. In the previous two years he had suffered two psychotic episodes and an abnormal heart rhythm. On the evening of his death, al-Ani was seen behaving strangely in Southend town centre; it appears he had once again succumbed to psychotic illness. One of the Police Community Support Officers who observed his behaviour commented that he did not even seem to recognise the police; he certainly never acknowledged or spoke to them.

Following a brief scuffle, al-Ani was purportedly arrested "for public order" and led away. After a few steps he braced his legs and hunched his shoulders. What happened to him as a result of this display of so-called "aggressive resistance" is captured on CCTV. Three police officers throw him to the ground and hold him down for about 10 minutes while they try to cuff him. An officer appears to kneel on his neck and they use various "pain compliance techniques" such as yanking his cuffed wrist and kneeling on a baton across the backs of his knees. He is then taken by car to the nearby police station. Police claim that, although handcuffed, he became "violent" again on the journey and had to be dealt with by means of punches and baton strikes. He collapsed of a cardiac arrest somewhere en route. He was left lying face down in cuffs at the station for several minutes before any treatment was offered. Paramedics came quickly but could not revive him.

Apparently, up to 30% of those whom the police encounter each day have mental health problems, which is why police are trained in identifying and dealing with mental illness. They are also trained – among other things – not to kneel on people's necks or subject them to prolonged restraint in the prone position. Yet this inquest was told by the restraining officers and a police trainer that regardless of this training, the level of force used, including these dangerous techniques, could be justified with the aim of securing "control and compliance", even though al-Ani had been implicated in a relatively minor matter and probably never even understood their intentions. Unfortunately the jury appear to have accepted this reasoning in their verdict.

Regardless of the jury's views the circumstances of this avoidable death must form part of the wider debate on policing in this country that has finally been kick-started by the violent actions of police officers filmed at the G20 protests – including the incident involving Ian Tomlinson, who subsequently died.

I hope the outcome of that debate will be that we, as a society, decide it is unwise to place so much power in the hands of individuals who all-too-frequently demonstrate that they are not equal to the responsibility. If we cannot go that far then we absolutely must make sure that a robust system of checks and balances exists in the form of a genuinely independent and fearless police watchdog. Unfortunately, the Independent Police Complaints Commission simply does not meet that brief.

The al-Ani family have the unenviable perspective of having already seen, almost to its conclusion, the process that has just begun for the Tomlinson family. The stories that have been reported in the Tomlinson case about violent policing and an inept IPCC seemingly unable to bring any real scepticism to their dealings with police were dismally familiar to the al-Ani family's experience. In their case, a catalogue of basic errors and misjudgments by the IPCC have at best left them unable to trust any of the information they gathered, and at worst have denied the inquest jury a full picture of the circumstances of this death.

These failings may reflect a culture within the IPCC that is skewed by its close links with police and the many seconded, retired or former police officers on the payroll. Whatever the reason, the IPCC has failed to do its job in this case and in too many others. In the process, it has compounded rather than alleviated public concerns about the kind of policing we too frequently see in mobile phone or CCTV footage.

Source: The Guardian

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