Police chiefs 'ignore claims of brutality'

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Senior police officers were yesterday accused of failing to deal with claims of police brutality and gross misconduct, which are costing the taxpayer millions in damages and costs.

The allegations came in the wake of Thursday's inquest jury verdict that Scotland Yard officers had "unlawfully killed" Shiji Lapite during an arrest and - in a separate court - the payment of more than pounds 90,000 in damages and costs to three people who sued for assault, wrongful imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

Thursday saw the second "unlawful killing" verdict against Metropolitan Police officers in two months. In November, a coroner's jury brought in a similar decision in the case of Richard O'Brien, who died after telling police arresting him: "I can't breathe."

In both cases, the verdict appeared to fly in the face of earlier decisions by the Crown Prosecution Service that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any officers involved in either incident. Now the CPS has been forced to reconsider its decisions.

There have been remarkably few prosecutions to have resulted from cases involving allegations of brutality, perhaps even more surprisingly, there have been equally few disciplinary actions.

In the case of Oliver Pryce, a 30 year-old man who, like Mr Lapite, died as the result of a police neck hold, there was both an "unlawful killing verdict" and, in a civil action for damages, an admission by Cleveland police of liability. But no officers were ever charged or disciplined.

In London alone in 1994, police paid out nearly pounds 1.4m in damages and even more in lawyers' bills, winning outright only 24 out of 304 cases. In 1993, they paid out nearly pounds 1.1m, plus costs, winning outright only 16 of 243 cases. Over those two years - the latest for which figures are available, pounds 1.5m was paid out to settle 48 serious claims - including one for more than pounds 500,000 for assault and false imprisonment.

But although dozens of police were involved in these, none were prosecuted and only four disciplined. One officer was cautioned, another fined and two "given words of advice".

Yesterday lawyers and MPs suggested the lack of any apparent action against officers, suggested "an absence of will" on the part of senior officers, including Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, to tackle the problem.

Scotland Yard declined an invitation to discuss the matter in depth, but has in the past maintained a reluctance to pursue disciplinary action because people chose to sue, rather than go through the formal complaints procedure. Their argument is: "If there is no complaint, how can there be any action?"

But Raju Bhatt, a leading London solicitor, said: "What more do they need in the form of a complaint than a detailed statement of claim and witness statements in support?"

He said that when there had been adverse findings by judges and juries, there should be even more compulsion on senior officers to investigate. "Instead, what is happening is that officers are being led to believe that their activities are acceptable because they can get away with it. "If there was a suspicion that you or I, as a member of the public, had been involved in a serious attack, we would be arrested, held in custody, probably charged. and brought to court within the year."

But Sir Paul is on the record as saying that solicitors and complainants saw the police as a "soft option" to sue and that he was determined to settle less and fight more actions in court.

Yesterday, Chris Mullin ,the Labour MP and veteran justice campaigner said: "The Metropolitan police are paying millions each year in damages and lawyers' fees, yet the Commissioner is flatly refusing to take any action against officers whose misbehaviour is responsible for this cost to the taxpayer. The longer this goes on, the more that public confidence will be undermined."