Scotland Yard has been forced into a humiliating reversal of a decision to allow the retirement of an officer accused of covering up the maltreatment of a a mentally ill musician who died on the floor of a police station.
The force said yesterday that it was suspending PC Andrew Birks on the eve of his departure from the force following a legal challenge by the family of Sean Rigg, who died in 2008 after being arrested and physically restrained by four police officers. The officers were accused at an inquest of placing the handcuffed Mr Rigg face down in a small caged foot well of a police van with his legs bent back.
The decision is the latest twist in a six-year saga that has exposed failures to properly investigate the death by the police watchdog and fresh controversy over the ability of the service to hold officers to account for alleged wrongdoing.
It emerged that the force accepted the resignation of PC Birks on 12 April while legal delays prevented the start of a new investigation by the police watchdog into alleged gross misconduct. His retirement would have allowed him to avoid any disciplinary hearing.
His plans only came to light weeks later after the police watchdog sought – and failed – to serve a notice on the officer of its intention to investigate him for alleged gross misconduct.
PC Birks, the most senior of the four arresting officers, was accused at an inquest of mistreating Mr Rigg on the way to Brixton police station after he was arrested for attacking passers-by. He was then accused of wasting valuable minutes in a cover-up as the 40-year-old lay dying. The officer denied any wrongdoing.
The jury found that Mr Rigg’s death was caused by an “unnecessarily” long restraint with "unnecessary force". Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe told the family in 2012 that CCTV cameras would be fitted in the backs of all police vans as a result of the case.
Mr Rigg's older sister Marcia Rigg-Samuel said: “The Rigg family is relieved that the commissioner has seen sense to suspend Pc Birks and reverse his resignation, so that he can face disciplinary investigations, and possible gross misconduct charges depending on what is found.”
It called on the commissioner to suspend all the other officers involved and called on the Government to change the law to prevent officers quietly resigning to avoid disciplinary hearings.
“No police officer accused of serious wrongdoing should be able to escape investigation by retiring,” said Jack Dromey, the shadow Police Minister.
The case followed attempts to tighten up the regime following the scandal over PC Simon Harwood who was cleared of manslaughter over the death of a man he hit with a baton during the 2009 G20 protests.
It later emerged that he had been able to quit two forces including the Metropolitan Police while facing disciplinary investigations and rejoin the service in new roles. He was sacked at a rare public hearing in 2012 after twice trying to resign.
Speaking last year, the force’s deputy commissioner Craig Mackey said: "Predominantly my line is: if they are due to go before a board and it is a substantive case, they go before a board. The rules are very strict on that.”
Scotland Yard said: "What is important now is that there is a full and thorough investigation. There has been much speculation and debate about the actions of all the officers involved in this case, only through this new investigation can the actual facts of what took place be established based on evidence.
"The officer has given assurances, via his legal representative, that he would fully co-operate with any new investigation by the IPCC."