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Death in Custody
There are few more vexed situations than a member of the public dying in the care of state officials. As Kurt Barling reports, the death last week of a Nigerian man whilst being arrested by police officers, once again shines the spotlight on the IPCC
The case of Jean Charles de Menezes is a constant reminder of the need to protect the public and police officers from misunderstanding by swiftly establishing the facts. This is no less a challenge in the case of Frank Ogboru.
Speaking to Christine Ogburo on the telephone from Lagos she had a very simple question, "I want to know what killed my husband?".
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) have to work out what events led up to the attempted arrest; what happened during the arrest; was the force used to detain Mr Ogburo reasonable and was everything done to ensure he was given the right medical attention he needed once he became unwell. This will involve identifying the speed with which the London Ambulance Service was called to the scene.
The IPCC was set up because public trust in the police service's ability to investigate itself, when things went wrong, had evaporated. Let's not beat around the bush, it was seen as a particular problem amongst London's minority communities.
Establishing the Commission was one of the measures put in place early in the life of the Labour government to reassure the public that the State (in this case the Metropolitan Police and its officers) would make itself accountable to independent bodies when a critical incident occurred. Before that the police effectively investigated themselves.
Frank Ogburo was 43. He had been on a visit to London to see friends since early September. His wife was expecting him home next week. Last Tuesday evening, the 26th October, he had an argument with a woman in the flat he had been staying in.
The details of the domestic dispute are as yet unclear, but things became sufficiently heated for the police to be called. Within an hour or so of the arrival of uniformed police Frank Ogburo lay dead outside the Vista flats in Woolwich town centre. He was treated by paramedics but was recorded as having passed away before he reached Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
The current investigation led by senior investigating officer Paul Craig will pay particular attention to the findings of the coroner in the inquest into the death of Roger Sylvester. It was recommended that police officers needed to be trained in order to avoid placing a member of the public under arrest in danger. This meant avoiding adopting restraining positions which could cause positional asphyxia.
Already the Nigerian government have taken an interest in the circumstances surrounding the death of one of their citizens. The Nigerian community in Woolwich are lobbying their diplomatic representatives to try and find answers. This will do little for the reputation of the British police in certain circles abroad coming so soon after the Jean Charles de Menezes case.
IPCC officials have so far leafleted local residents and been on the ground to try and talk to local people who may have witnessed the events surrounding Mr Ogboru’s death. Once the formal identification procedure is finalised the IPCC will begin public appeals for witnesses to come forward.
It clearly has not helped matters amongst local people that the IPCC announced early on that Mr Ogburo died in hospital. He did not and eyewitnesses have questioned the investigators neutrality as a consequence.
Amongst those people in Woolwich who witnessed the event and with whom I have spoken there is still a widespread perception that the IPCC is umbilically linked to the police service.
In reality the criminal and police misconduct investigation that is underway has to remain impartial because the police officers are material witnesses themselves to what happened to Mr Ogboru.
If the investigators were not independent, no court would accept the prosecution evidence. This case may or may not end up in court what is important is that the authorities must be able to defend their decision. In other words their reasoning must be seen to be just.
BBC London's Kurt Barling
The inquiries into the 151 previous deaths in custody since 1993 have shown there are few greater tests of a State’s willingness to be held accountable for the actions of its officials than when a person dies in these circumstances. In cases like the shooting of Harry Stanley and the death of Roger Sylvester, both involving police officers, the evidence also suggests that this is often the most difficult kind of case in which to establish the truth.
The answer to Christine Ogburo's question is necessarily a complicated one, but one that needs to be answered swiftly not just for her sake but to preserve the good reputation of the State and those that are charged with keeping the peace.
last updated: 19/05/2008 at 18:22