Police face charges over unlawful death in custody

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Six police officers could face manslaughter charges after an inquest jury found a man who died after being restrained in a psychiatric hospital had been unlawfully killed.

The Scotland Yard officers were found to have used excessive force to restrain Roger Sylvester, 30, in January 1999. The council worker stopped breathing and fell into a coma at the emergency psychiatric unit at St Anne's Hospital in Haringey, north London, when six policemen held him down for about 20 minutes, St Pancras coroner's court heard.

Mr Sylvester, died seven days later. He was arrested while naked and banging on doors outside his home in Tottenham in January 1999.

The Crown Prosecution Service announced last night that it would re-examine the case and reassess its earlier decision not to bring criminal charges against any of the Metropolitan Police officers involved in the death.

The Sylvester family welcomed the verdict and called for the CPS to bring charges against the officers involved. Relatives of the dead man are also expected to bring claims for damages against the Met.

The inquest verdict, which was greeted with cheers from friends, family and campaigners who packed the court, follows a four-year campaign to prove the police used unlawful restraint against Mr Sylvester.

During his arrest, Mr Sylvester was handcuffed and sometimes restrained on his stomach - which increases the risk of suffocation - the inquest was told. The action took place while a doctor went to fetch a sedative.

The six male officers involved claimed Mr Sylvester had been kept on his side, in line with police restraint guidelines. The jury took two hours to reach a unanimous verdict yesterday. The foreman said Mr Sylvester, a black man with a history of mental health problems, was held in a restraint position for too long and that an unreasonable amount of force was used against him.

Earlier, coroner Dr Andrew Reid told jurors they could only return an unlawful killing verdict if they felt that more force was applied than was reasonably necessary and that it had been unlawful.

The jury ruled Mr Sylvester died from brain damage and cardiac arrest, triggered and exacerbated by breathing problems which occurred during the restraint - and from cannabis-induced delirium.

After the verdict, Mr Sylvester's cousin, Shirley Sylvester, said she hoped the ruling would lead to changes in the way police restrained suspects. She said: "Roger was restrained dangerously; that was what the jury concluded. They said it was unlawful and we agree. Although there are issues about how long one can be kept in the prone position, it is something that we feel very strongly about.

"I want their [the police] behaviour to be changed." Asked if the family were considering taking any further legal action Ms Sylvester said: "We have to discuss that with our lawyers. There needs to be a reassessment. Lessons have not been learned. Roger would not have died if lessons had been learned."

The dead man's mother, Sheila, 68, a retired nurse, added: "All they did was demonise Roger. I'm very pleased at how it went today. I thank God and thank the campaign. It is been four years and nine months of hard work. We have had a lot to put up with and I have a lot to think about now."

Deborah Coles, of the campaign group Inquest, which supported the Sylvester family, said: "The shocking reality of this case is that it can happen to someone tonight on the streets of London because, since Roger's death, no action has been taken by the Metropolitan Police to warn officers about the dangers of prone restraint."

The danger of certain restraint techniques has been highlighted by the Police Complaints Authority as a factor behind a significant number of deaths in custody.

Mr Sylvester's family have campaigned for more than four years to find out how and why he slipped into a coma.

Mr Sylvester was restrained on the morning of 11 January 1999 after police received reports of a disturbance. Eight officers detained Mr Sylvester under the Mental Health Act and drove him to a nearby hospital.

Mr Sylvester was left alone in a room with six of the officers who held him down and restrained him. He lost consciousness and fell into a coma and died a week later in hospital. The result of a police inquiry was passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service in October 1999 but the CPS announced that no police officer would face criminal charges.

The announcement the CPS is to re-examine the case means any further legal challenge will be put on hold.

David Lammy, the Sylvester family's MP in Tottenham, was at court to support them yesterday. He said: "We have been waiting a long time for answers and justice in this case.

"People knew Roger Sylvester in the community and now some very serious questions need to be answered about how he died."

Mr Lammy said he would be demanding answers from the police about what happened.

"Half a football team to restrain a man means there are some very serious questions which need to be answered."

A statement issued outside the court on behalf of the police officers said: "The eight officers continue to express their sympathy to the family of Mr Sylvester for their loss."

Commander Phillip Hagon added that the Met had taken Mr Sylvester's death "extremely seriously".

He added: "This has been an extremely difficult time for everyone involved in the case and we are naturally disappointed with this outcome.".

"We understand that this verdict by the inquest may result in further inquiries and we will make every effort to assist with those inquiries."