Life

How a Mental Health Crisis Ended with a Death in Police Custody

Sean Rigg's sister Marcia says that the cops stood there and watched her brother die.
August 26, 2021, 8:15am
Marcia 2 - Sean - VICE
Marcia Rigg looks at a photo of her brother Sean, who died in police custody. All photos: Maeva Vitela

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan. Duggan is one of many people to have died or been seriously injured during an interaction with British police, yet no officer in the UK has been convicted of murder following a death in custody since 1969, and only two have been found guilty of manslaughter. In ‘Those Left Behind’, we meet British families from different generations who have lost loved ones to police brutality.

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Having just turned 40 in 2008, Sean Rigg had proven himself to be a man of many talents. The musician and dancer had just released his debut album, Be Brother B Good in 2007 and had set up his own record label, Dan Man Records, with friends - all alongside living with mental health issues, including a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 20.

By August 2008, Rigg was living in a hostel for people with a recorded mental health history in Brixton, south London. Though in a hostel, he was not under any sections and had been managing his mental health well until he experienced a sharp decline. Five 999 calls were made by hostel staff over a three-hour period, requesting emergency police assistance. It wasn’t until he left the hostel, half-naked, that the police responded to calls from members of the public who said it was obvious that the musician was unwell.

Four officers chased Rigg down, handcuffed and restrained him in a face-down position while, according to the inquest jury, leaning on him for eight minutes. He was then arrested for assaulting a police officer, public disorder and the theft of a passport – which later emerged to be his own cancelled passport, with a cut in the corner. 

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Placed in a cramped, V-shaped position in the footwell of the van’s cage, Rigg was taken to Brixton police station. By the time he was taken out, he had become “extremely unwell and not fully conscious”, according to the coroner’s report. This was followed by a further delay of ten minutes where he was left handcuffed, with an arresting officer captured on the station’s CCTV asserting that he was “faking it”.

Carried to the caged area at the entrance of the station’s custody suite, he was slumped on the floor, handcuffed and unresponsive. At one point, Rigg urinated on himself. After 25 minutes of arriving at the police station, a medical examiner was called to examine him; a custody sergeant named Paul White told the doctor that Rigg was “feigning unconsciousness”, according to CCTV.

When the examiner inspected him again ten minutes later, Rigg’s heart had stopped and he was not breathing. Despite CPR efforts, he was pronounced dead from cardiac arrest at 9.24 PM at hospital, although an inquest jury found that he died at the station a full hour before. 

An Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation found that police had acted “reasonably and proportionately” in 2010, but the 2012 inquest concluded that the police had deployed unsuitable and unnecessary force, failing to uphold his basic rights and police failings “more than minimally” contributing to his death. 

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Following criticism of its initial investigation, the IPCC passed evidence to prosecutors against the five officers - Met police constables Andrew Birks, Richard Glasson, Mark Harratt, Matthew Forward and Sergeant Paul White – in 2016. Ultimately, all five were cleared of misconduct. White faced a trial for perjury over evidence he gave at the inquest but was later cleared. No criminal charges were raised against the officers.

The brutal, chaotic and seemingly unending nature of this case led to it being taken up by campaigners, spearheaded by Sean Rigg’s older sister, Marcia, calling for an examination of police conduct when dealing with people with mental health issues –  behaviour that is only further compounded, as in Sean’s case, when the mentally unwell person is also Black.

Marcia, who attended the screening of Ken Fero’s film Ultraviolence, an examination of deaths in police custody in the UK alongside Janet Adler, made time to sit down with VICE and speak about her brother’s case. Sat on a park bench in Wandle Park, minutes away from Colliers Wood station in south-west London, Marcia was tastefully swathed in a camel-coloured shawl with a black beret perched on top of her braids. 

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With a calm and graceful presence, her voice is the only giveaway as to the nightmare she and her family have been living for over a decade. It’s a certain gentleness laced with a bone-tired weariness; a kind of exhaustion that comes with 13 years of relentless campaigning because your brother died in police custody.

Marcia Rigg, Sean Rigg's sister

Marcia Rigg, Sean Rigg's sister.

VICE: Tell me about Sean - what was your relationship like?

Marcia Rigg: I was his big sister. We were very close. He used to love coming round because he loved to eat good Jamaican food, which I cook. As the eldest, I kept the family close and he would often be over. He was talented, he was handsome, he was kind and he made music. I’d like for people to hear some of his music and hear his actual voice.

We were close but I was also concerned about his mental health. I was concerned about his medication - I was concerned that he didn’t take it, but he was concerned that he was being over-medicated and really wanted to live a normal life, which he did – and it was quite extraordinary. He travelled occasionally and would just get on planes to the likes of  Thailand, Switzerland, Germany, Ethiopia and many more. He didn’t allow his mental health to hold him back, and I’m so glad he did that. The thing was, there were some times when he was unwell and ended up being picked up by police, in prison or solitary confinement and they would contact me because my contact details are in the passport or they’d find me through the British embassy of whichever country it was.

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He always carried his passport, which is what he did on the day that he died, because, during those times, he would’ve been very psychotic and didn’t take the medication. That’s one of the symptoms with someone who is diagnosed with schizophrenia - when they feel well, sometimes they don’t take their medication. When someone is unwell, they don’t have the capacity to understand their state of mind at that time. He always carried that passport but, the thing is, he died in his own jurisdiction where he was known by police.

When they came to tell us Sean had died, we were like, well, what happened, you know? We assumed that we would find out absolutely everything, but it was quite the opposite. If your loved one dies in state custody, you’ll quickly realise that they hold back a lot of information.

What kind of information was shared with you when your family was notified of Sean’s death?

They came to tell us in the middle of the night that Sean had just suddenly collapsed and died in police custody, and that they didn’t know anything else. 

They say that Sean was being violent. Yes, he had been kicking out at members of the public, but it was obvious that he was unwell because he was in and out of the traffic. He was doing karate stances in the middle of Brixton High Street. He was probably hallucinating and dressed inappropriately, naked from the waist up. All the signs were there. Nobody was hurt, that’s important. An officer said that Sean punched him twice in the back of the head but there were no witnesses to that, no evidence of that when the officer was seen by a doctor. The doctor didn’t report any injuries on the officer.

When the first press release went out, they said that he assaulted an officer, not “allegedly assaulted”. They always took the officers’ accounts from the very beginning and they’ve stuck to it. They said that they didn’t recognise that he had mental health issues. They even said that he didn’t look like the picture in the passport. The police didn’t radio check the passport so then, why did they assume it was stolen?

The narrative was that somebody was arrested who was behaving violently, he became unwell, quote unquote, and suddenly died. That’s often the narrative when there’s a restraint-related death but, my argument is that people don’t necessarily die of mental health issues, they die from restraint.

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Identifying this shift in blame is so crucial, especially considering that, in Sean’s case, it led to a charge of perjury for one of the officers. What was that navigating that like for you?

Well, the inquest jury saw the evidence and said that the police’s actions, or inactions, contributed to his death. When Sean arrived at the police station, he was still in handcuffs. The sergeant then said that he went to see Sean in the van to conduct a risk assessment, looked him in the eye and he was sitting up. He said that Sean didn’t speak, just stared at him, and that was a response. He actually lied because he went nowhere near the van, the CCTV proves it. The sergeant did not leave the custody suite. The officers also weren’t given a full interview under caution for seven months.

There were so many barriers we encountered, even though they were telling us that it was an independent investigation. So we thought, ‘If we can’t get them on gross negligence manslaughter, let’s get them for lying.’ The sergeant’s argument was that he suddenly suffered with memory loss. It was ridiculous. Eventually, my family appealed it and we did get a perjury trial - the first of its kind - but it was a kangaroo court because the criminal jury were not afforded the facts that were found at the inquest. That officer was acquitted. I was fuming.

All the things they did to Sean compromised his breathing, and they just stood and watched a dying man. Suddenly when they realised he wasn’t breathing, they didn’t call an emergency ambulance right away, either. 

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They try to make you think you’re going mad, like, are you watching the same footage as me? It’s like with George Floyd. I think the difference here was that we had footage [in the public domain] and it was a pandemic. It was the fact that even a pandemic couldn’t stop this atrocity. How do these officers sleep at night? And what do they tell their families? What do they tell their partners and children?

One of the officers in my brother’s case attempted to retire to be ordained in the Church of England. I found out through an anonymous phone call to my solicitor. 

Marcia Rigg with photos of her brother Sean.

Marcia Rigg with photos of her brother Sean.

And not just any kind of  police officer, but an officer who was involved in a death.

Listen. He came in court with his collar, went on the news and was asked “If Marcia Rigg was here, what would you say to her?” He mumbled something I couldn’t hear, but basically said that he would do the same thing. He tried to resign while the legal proceedings were still on going but we put a stop to that - he was denied permission.

Absolutely incredible. I mean, off the back of that, what would justice look like for you and for Sean? What do you conceive of as “justice”?

First of all, somebody should’ve went to prison for the gross negligence manslaughter and death of my brother. And for lying about it afterwards. Since that hasn’t happened, justice will only come in the pursuance of it, to challenge publicly and embarrass the judicial system and the state. They will always say no until it’s exposed, like with [Matt] Hancock. You see CCTV? The camera doesn’t lie. Technology is changing, people are changing. We have to fight for justice.

For me, I’ve had no choice but to do this. I don’t regret it. It’s just not an easy road to take. We’re surveilled and demonised but, to do this, you have to be fearless with it. It can be a lonely and lengthy road but I’m so thankful for the community, my family, my legal team. We couldn’t have had such a mass campaign on Sean’s behalf without them. 

Thank you for sharing all of this. I want to bring it back to your little brother, Sean. What are some of your lasting memories of him?

I miss him. He was such a dapper dresser and so kind. Nothing can bring him back, nothing. However, if there’s one positive thing at least that came out of all of this, it’s that Sean had an estranged son who he didn’t live with. We found him. He’s now part of our family. Sean’s son now has a son who Sean never met. With his son, it’s almost like there’s a bit of Sean in the room. They walk the same, look the same, just the spitting image of him. It has brought some brightness and relief, especially for our mother. 

[My brother] was a Black man who was unwell and was given a death sentence.