Yesterday, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) confirmed that it had entered a "new phase" of its investigation into the death of Rashan Charles. The officer who was involved in restraining Charles has been formally notified that he is being investigated for "gross misconduct". According to its own guidance, the IPCC defines gross misconduct as "a breach of the Standards of Professional Behaviour that is so serious it would justify dismissal".
Charles was forcibly restrained on the floor of an east London 24-hour shop in the early hours of the 22nd of July, and 70 minutes later was pronounced dead.
IPCC investigations into deaths after police contact are notoriously protracted. The family of Rashan Charles released a statement today noting the new phrase of the investigation, commenting that the "pace of the investigation, the delays in suspending the officer, and the projected year long wait for an inquest" all combined to "work against the interests of Rashan, his family, and his close friends".
A spokesperson for Inquest, a charity which provides specialist advice to bereaved families and lawyers in death in custody cases, noted that the IPCC's announcement that it will be investigating an officer for gross misconduct, before the investigation has concluded, is part of a recent pattern of investigations unfolding in this way, and that they normally don't end in discipline or dismissal for officers.
In 2014, for example, 34-year-old Adrian McDonald died in the back of a locked police van after he was tasered by officers who were called to a house following reports of a burglary. McDonald was in fact attending a birthday party. While the three officers were accused of a "failure of duty of care", the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution, and the officers did not face any criminal charges. This week, two of the three were found guilty of the lesser charge of "misconduct" during a hearing and received written warnings which will stay on their records for 12 months.
While the officers in the case of Adrian McDonald had not used restraints, their failure to uphold their "duty of care" relates to the way in which they neglected to offer or seek appropriate medical support for McDonald. Similarly, in the case of Rashan Charles' death, IPCC commissioner Cindy Butts stated that the officer may also have breached police standards in "how he dealt with Rashan's medical emergency".
So an investigation into gross misconduct doesn't necessarily mean officers will face dismissal. Deborah Coles, Director at Inquest, commented that: "Too often words of advice are all that comes from these proceedings. This sends a worrying message about what it takes for police misconduct to be met with meaningful sanctions."
The chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation has said that the officer, who is captured in CCTV footage forcibly restraining Charles on the floor, made a decision "in a fraction of a second" and acted in order to "preserve life and help [Charles], thinking he may have swallowed dangerous drugs".
The IPCC, which is independent of the police and investigates potential wrongdoing, acknowledged the "inflammatory nature" of speculation that Charles was trying to swallow drugs, and confirmed that the object in Charles' throat "did not contain a controlled substance". A post-mortem revealed he had swallowed a plastic-wrapped package containing "a mixture of paracetamol and caffeine".
Officers being found guilty of gross misconduct regarding a death is rare, but being dismissed permanently is even rarer. Habib Ullah (known as "Paps") died during a police stop and search. In March of 2015 a jury determined that misconduct could not be proven in relation to the level of force used to restrain him, and the officers involved were exonerated of all wrongdoing.
Last week, a misconduct hearing concerning false and misleading evidence provided by an officer concerning the death of James Herbert was concluded. Again, the CPS ruled that there was insufficient evidence for a realistic prosecution, and no criminal charges were brought. After the hearing Tony Herbert, James' father, said: "Over seven years after James' death, another process has exonerated a police officer […] Nobody is ever going to be held to account for any aspect of James' death, and that is something in my heart of hearts I realised quite some time ago."
When a misconduct hearing as part of the investigation into Rashan Charles' death is scheduled, it will likely be conducted in public. Regulations introduced by Theresa May as part of a bundle of police reforms in 2015 now require police misconduct hearings to be open to the media and the public, in order to "show that our disciplinary system is open and transparent". Deborah Coles commented that: "Police officers are public servants and must not be seen to be above the law, there needs to be accountability and openness in disciplinary hearings."
Yet while the announcement of a misconduct investigation at this early stage in some sense seeks to temper the pain and anger felt by Charles' family and community, who protested in the streets of Hackney and held vigils in the aftermath of his death, it is a small step in a long process of obtaining the justice.
Police-community relations and trust in the IPCC are incredibly fragile, especially in Hackney, where police forces have a noted history of corruption and brutality. A gross misconduct hearing, although an apparent escalation of the investigation, does not mean there is any greater likelihood of the responsible police officer facing criminal charges or serious discipline for taking actions that led to Rashan's death.