Warnings about neck holds failed to prevent death

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Home Affairs Correspondent

Senior police officers have long recognised neck holds were dangerous to the point of being lethal - but have always fallen short of a total ban on their use.

When Shiji Lapite was arrested in December 1993, official guidance stated that strangleholds should be used only as a last resort.

Those guidelines were issued by chief police officers following an inquiry and inquest into the death of Oliver Pryce, another 30-year-old black man. Mr Pryce, suffering a mental breakdown, had hurled himself into the path of a slow-moving ambulance.

Police called to the scene grabbed him in a neck lock, bundled him face down into the back of a van and drove him to a police station. On arrival, he was found to have stopped breathing.

As in Mr Lapite's case, the inquest jury decided Mr Pryce had been "unlawfully killed" - but no charges or disciplinary action were brought. However, last year, Cleveland police - in a rare admission of liability - did pay undisclosed but "substantial" damages to Mr Pryce's family.

And there have been others who have died following the application of head or neck holds. Clinton McCurbin died in Wolverhampton in 1987, James Davey in Littlepark police station, Coventry, in 1983. Winston Rose and Nicholas Ofusu, both mentally ill black men, died in police stations, in 1981 and 1983, after inhaling their own vomit and John Lamaletie died of a stroke, nine days after he had been held in a lock which caused a blood clot in an artery leading to his brain.

Neck locks can cause death in seconds, by obstructing the flow of blood to or from the brain or by triggering a reflex action in the carotid artery which can cause sudden cardiac arrest.

Professor Bernard Knight, a consultant Home Office pathologist, says they should be used only in truly life-threatening situations: "They are dangerous holds that can never be controlled in a struggle," he told the Independent.

In fact, policemen and women have not been trained, in recent years, to use neck holds, but those skilled in martial arts or those who have served in the military have been known to use them. The Lapite inquest jury heard that PC Paul Wright, who had held Lapite in the neck lock, had previously served in the Army. According to one senior officer, others have used them "instinctively" when in violent struggles.

Following Mr Lapite's death, the Association of Chief Police Officers issued new guidance to all forces, warning of the dangers of neck and strangleholds and stressing that they should only be used in exceptional circumstances and officers would have to justify that it was a "reasonable" use of force.

But there remain concerns about the lack of thorough training and instruction in the use of control and restraint generally. In November, an inquest jury again returned a verdict of "unlawful killing" against the Metropolitan Police in the case of Richard O'Brien, who died after a struggle with police.