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Policing and mental health body is 'cosmetic exercise'

The Commission on Policing and Mental Health has been set up following concerns about “how police respond to people with mental health conditions”, according to Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, Britain’s most senior police officer.

But the narrow terms of reference – and the exclusion of agencies who specialise in the areas of black deaths in custody – indicate that the new body is heavily weighted to cast sand in the eyes of those seeking positive change.

Considering that Afro-Caribbean communities are in the front-line of deaths in custody associated with mental health problems, why are the specialist campaign groups Inquest and Black Mental Health UK being excluded from the Commission?

Hogan-Howe promised an independent body would be set up after an inquest into the death of musician Sean Rigg found that police had used an “unsuitable” level of force before his death.

Rigg, a 40-year-old musician and karate expert, died at Brixton police station on 21 October 2008 of cardiac arrest after being restrained by four officers. Since then, Rigg’s relatives and supporters have been campaigning to establish the truth about his death.

Even the toothless Independent Police Complaints Commission was forced to concede that not only the police, but also the South London and Maudsley Mental Health Trust had not responded properly. It concluded that Rigg’s death was “symptom of a deeper problem – the linkage between mental illness and deaths in or following police custody”.

This is mealy-mouthed phraseology, considering that some 50% of those who lose their lives in police custody are under the care of mental health services and that a significant proportion are black men.

The inquest verdict into Riggs’ death was far more damning: the jury found that the Met and the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust were guilty of a catalogue of errors which “more than minimally contributed to his [Rigg’s] death”.

The Rigg family’s solicitor, Daniel Machover, pointed to the whitewash nature of the IPCC’s findings when the inquest jury delivered its verdict:

… while the IPCC gave the police a clean bill of health in 2010 … the inquest jury was highly critical of every aspect of the police conduct, including the eight minutes restraint in the prone position, a fact totally missed by the IPCC.

As Black Mental Health UK points out, detention rates for people from the UK’s Afro-Caribbean community doubled during the period of 2005–2010. Afro-Caribbean's are 50% more likely to enter the system via the criminal justice system or the police, 44% more likely to be sectioned, 29% more likely to be forcibly restrained, 50% more likely to be placed in seclusion and make up 30% of in-patients on medium secure psychiatric wards despite having similar rates of mental illness as British white people.

The Commission on Policing and Mental Health is to be chaired by the establishment figure, Lord Adebowale. Black Mental Health UK director Matilda MacAttram, said that excluding experts from BMH UK and Inquest, “who have the critical insight needed in this area which would ensure the transformation in police treatment of this vulnerable group, leaves one with the impression that this is nothing but a cosmetic exercise, which will not result in any positive change.”

Given the discrediting of the police in the wake of the independent Hillsborough report, state agencies are struggling to retain credibility, and not only amongst black and minority communities. Cuts in the health service mean that even well-intentioned people in long-established mental health institutions like the Maudsley Trust are failing in their duty of care. Creating toothless commissions cannot disguise this harsh reality.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
24 September 2012

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