On the 22nd of July 2017, a young black man, Rashan Charles, was restrained by a police officer on the floor of a corner shop in Hackney. Seventy minutes after the arrest, he died in hospital of a cardiac arrest and "upper airway obstruction by a foreign body", which refers to a package lodged in his throat when he died.
The inquest into Charles' death, which ended last Wednesday, concluded with a verdict of "accidental" death. However, speaking to the Press Association while awaiting the result of the inquest, Charles' great-uncle claimed the jury had been "shackled" by the coroner, and that the inquest process had "descended into farce".
CCTV footage of the incident which led to Charles' death depicts the young man being slammed to the floor by an officer, who then kneels on his back. Footage from a camera worn by the officer documents the officer shouting at Charles to "spit it out", before performing an oral cavity search. A bystander joins the officer in restraining Charles, who is then handcuffed while face down on the floor. A few seconds later, Charles becomes motionless, and the officer and bystander (who is still sat on Charles) begin shaking him – presumably in an attempt to rouse him. The footage shows a further two minutes where Charles is unresponsive, and the officer and bystander continue to restrain him in handcuffs while sitting on him. Throughout, Charles is cuffed, face-down, with the backs of his hands placed together – a form of handcuffing described in a policing forum as usually employed for "violent lock ups".
Despite the violent nature of this scene, the inquest concluded that the officer’s use of force had been "justified". According to INQUEST, a charity which provides expertise on state-related deaths, "the coroner did not leave the option for the jury to come to a more critical conclusion, such as unlawful killing or even neglect, saying she did not believe a 'reasonable jury could see this'". This meant that the only conclusion the jury could reach was "accidental death", which poses the question: what’s the point of a jury if they’re not allowed to do their job?
The evidence given from a policing perspective was delivered by two employees of the Metropolitan police force (the same force which the officer who restrained Charles was a member of), as instructed by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (formerly IPCC, now IOPC). The IPCC's 13-year history has been characterised by a series of grave errors in high-profile death in custody cases, including "inadvertently" and incorrectly telling journalists that Mark Duggan – whose murder by police was a catalyst for the 2011 London "riots" – had shot at the police.
One of the officers giving "expert evidence" had trained with the officer who restrained Rashan Charles. When asked about the officer’s failure to immediately call an ambulance when Charles was unresponsive, one of the officers giving evidence suggested that the inquest consider the "effects of stress" that the officer was experiencing, having exerted himself to chase Rashan into the shop. The officer remarked to the inquest that "sometimes you get tunnel vision".
Criticisms of the inquiry don't begin and end with the narrow selection of evidence given, and the seeming lack of a fairly functioning jury. It is also worth noting that the police instructed, at considerable public expense, two top lawyers to defend the Metropolitan police. One of these lawyers was John Beggs QC, who defended the police in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster which led to the death of 96 people at an FA Cup semi-final in 1989, due to what was eventually found to be gross negligence by police and ambulance services. As in Charles’ case, the first coroner’s inquest into the Hillsborough disaster also returned a verdict of "accidental death". Beggs’ appointment was met with dismay from friends of the family of Rashan Charles, who in January called for his replacement by "someone who has never been involved with this type of thing before".
The second lawyer defending the Met in the inquest was Neil Saunders, who secured an acquittal for the Deputy Editor of the News of the World, Neil Wallis, during the "phone hacking" scandal, as well as for Rebekah Brooks' husband Charlie, who was caught up in allegations of an "inappropriate" relationship between the Met police and News International (Charlie Brooks was later acquitted).
The conclusion of the inquest adds further weight to long-standing concerns that police in the UK act with impunity, particularly in relation to the deaths of black men in custody. Rashan Charles' death was one of six known restraint-related deaths of black men in the latter six months of 2017, adding to the 1,660 deaths following contact with the police since 1990. The conclusion of the inquest will fall most heavily on the family of Rashan Charles, who throughout the protracted investigation have simply called for "due process" in order to obtain "confidence in policing".
Rashan Charles' family have commented that he was a young father, an integral part of his family, and that he would be greatly missed.