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Is there new hope for death in custody cases in Britain?

TRAGIC: Rashan Charles died while in custody

A MAJOR overhaul to the police complaints system in England and Wales may offer fresh hope to the families and friends of people who have died in police custody.

The much-criticised Independent Police Complaints Commission was replaced last Monday (January 8) with new watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) which has been given strengthened powers. The move comes as part of a shake up announced by Theresa May when she was home secretary and followed anger and mistrust over the investigations into deaths of several men in police custody.

The Home Office said its structure would “ensure greater accountability to the public” by empowering the watchdog to launch its own investigations without referrals from police and making its probes completely separate from those carried out internally by forces.

The Government has also promised to introduce a requirement that police officers cooperate with inquiries into their conduct. In the past, some have refused to answer oral questions in interview and instead provided written answers at a later date. This considerably slows investigations into police misconduct cases.

The move comes in the wake of the recent Lammy report, which found racial disparities across the criminal justice system. Relatives of suspects killed and injured in police custody have previously expressed doubt about the IPCC’s independence and powers. The family of Rashan Charles, one of four black men who died after police contact last year, were strongly critical of the Met Police after it refused to suspend the officer who restrained him.

CONCERN

Shortly before the new body was announced, Dame Anne Owers, the outgoing chair of the IPCC admitted that the relationship between ethnicity and use of force must be looked at closely. She expressed concern at figures which showed that since April 2017, of the 11 people who have died after contact with the police in England and Wales, six are from an ethnic minority background.

They include high-profile cases such as Rashan Charles and Edson Da Costa in London, whose deaths led to tense street demonstrations against the Met Police. Speaking about the figures Owers told The Guardian: “Of those, five men were black or mixed race, one was a black woman and the remainder were white.

“We need to look closely between the relationship between ethnicity and the use of force.”

A report into deaths in custody ordered by Mrs May also raised concerns about the link between race discrimination and deaths in custody. The report, by Dame Elish Angiolini, said: “Deaths of people from BAME communities, in particular young black men, resonate with the black community’s experience of systemic racism, and reflect wider concerns about discriminatory over-policing, stop and search, and criminalisation.”

Michael Lockwood, who is heading the IOPC alongside deputies and regional directors, recognised these concerns. He told The Independent: “Public confidence in policing is best served by robust and independent oversight,” he said.

“People need to know that when things go wrong, or serious allegations are made about police officers, they will be thoroughly investigated by a truly independent body.”

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