Roger was seized by eight officers, left naked and died. Now another black family mourns

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BUNCHES of flowers outside 10b Summerhill Road in Tottenham, north London, are beginning to pile up. Eleven days ago at this address a naked black man, Roger Sylvester, was handcuffed by eight police officers and taken in a van to hospital. He collapsed and was hooked up to a life- support machine. A week later he was dead.

The heap of floral tributes around the doorstep signals a new and potentially damaging scandal for the Metropolitan Police. It comes at a time when Scotland Yard can ill afford more criticism of the way it treats black people.

The police were quick to stress that that during the incident that led to Mr Sylvester's death "the officers' main concern was for the well being of the man". But inquiries by The Independent have revealed some disturbing aspects, including a number of unexplained bruises reported to have been found on the 30-year-old's forehead and face.

The police have apparently admitted to the family that Mr Sylvester remained naked throughout his trip to hospital, despite his clothes being recovered from outside the house. He was also left naked on the floor of a hospital room until he became unconscious, according to the family's solicitor.

The case, which is being investigated by an outside police force, is expected to become a litmus test of the Metropolitan Police's pledges that they have learnt from previous deaths in custody and racial blunders highlighted by the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation.

Roger Sylvester's parents, Rupert and Sheila, are desperate to find out what happened to their son. Although he had suffered from a depressive illness for several years, neighbours described him as a neat, quiet, caring man. But on Monday 11 January he was not his normal self. Scotland Yard said in a statement that police were called at 9.37pm to investigate a "disturbance" in which "a naked man was reportedly banging on the door of a neighbour in an aggressive and vociferous manner". The statement added that "officers restrained Mr Sylvester - he was handcuffed for his own safety and that of others".

A neighbour who witnessed the incident said yesterday: "The police seemed very relaxed and good humoured. They were keeping their distance, but they seemed very calm ... I didn't see him taken into the van, but I could seen him through the side window. He was a very large figure and was jerking about, with his arms throwing in the air."

But here the versions of events described by police and other witnesses begin to diverge and things are less clear - for example, which house he was banging at. It was probably his own door.

The police statement said that after gaining the agreement of the local authority in Tottenham, Mr Sylvester was taken in a police van to nearby St Ann's Hospital to be assessed by a doctor.

Hickman and Rose, the solicitors representing the Sylvester family, say that the police admitted at a meeting with them that Mr Sylvester remained naked throughout the trip and at least one officer - possibly more - restrained him during the journey. His hands were restrained in front of his body throughout.

"Whilst at St Ann's Hospital, the man suffered respiratory failure and was resuscitated," said the police. The lawyers say they were told that Mr Sylvester remained naked and was left lying on the floor.

At about 10.26pm he was taken by ambulance to North Middlesex Hospital and later transferred to the Whittington Hospital where he was put on a life-support machine. A week later, doctors declared him clinically dead.

Immediately after the incident Scotland Yard set up an internal inquiry, which was taken over by an outside force - Essex - and overseen by the Police Complaints Authority.

The seriousness of the case was underlined yesterday with the announcement that the investigation was being upgraded and that John Broughton, Assistant Chief Constable of Essex, would now head the inquiry rather than a superintendent. All parties are waiting for the outcome of the post-mortem examination which was being carried out last night.

The prospect of the affair turning into a cause celebre became clear on Wednesday evening when about 50 people congregated outside Tottenham police station for a protest organised by the Socialist Workers Party. Among the demonstrators was Myrna Simpson, the mother of Joy Gardner, a Jamaican immigrant who died in 1993 after Metropolitan Police officers attempted to deport her.

Mr and Mrs Sylvester have appealed for calm, while pressing for the most comprehensive and independent investigation. They simply want the truth: "We want the inquiry to be fearless," they say.