When police have a stranglehold on the truth

Shiji Lapite died mysteriously in police custody last December. His widow is still fighting to find out exactly what happened to him. Heather Mills reports
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All that Olamide Lapite knows about how her husband met his death has been gleaned from reports in local newspapers. She knows Stoke Newington police say that after he left a restaurant in Clapton, north London, last December, he was arrested by two plainclothes officers. They said he was "acting suspiciously". There was a struggle. Within minutes, Shiji Lapite was dead in the back of a police van called to the scene to provide reinforcements. It was just after midnight on 16 December, a date Mr Lapite had cause to celebrate. A Nigerian who had lived in the United Kingdom for three years, he had that day been given leave to stay, pending consideration of his claim for asylum.

Shiji Lapite was 30. His son Olumide was just three weeks old; his daughter Oyin, two-and-a-half. Olamide cannot understand what happened. Her husband had never been in trouble with the police. He had made a living selling Nigerian foodstuffs door to door and by decorating.

For Olamide, his death was only the start of the torment. It has proven virtually impossible for the family to establish even the most basic facts about how Shiji died. They have had only hearsay and rumour to go on. They want truth and justice.

The police said they retrieved some crack cocaine and that traces of cocaine were found in Lapite's bloodstream. That finding has apparently been confirmed by post-mortem tests, but the family cannot be sure because the post-mortem results have never been disclosed to them. They maintain he had never had anything to do with hard drugs.

The family was also told that two unidentified officers have been suspended, that the Police Complaints Authority has supervised an investigation by the City of London Police, and that a file is before the Crown Prosecution Service, which will decide whether any officers will face criminal charges. One of the police officers is said to have received minor injuries during the arrest.

A post-mortem report carried out for the Lapite family found extensive bruising and abrasions to Mr Lapite's head and face and that he died from asphyxia. The cause of death was consistent with the use of a neck-lock or stranglehold of such force that it crushed his voice box. The report says cocaine may - or may not - have played a role in Shiji Lapite's death.

Many will find the idea that police officers might have killed someone with their bare hands shocking enough. Even more worrying is the fact that it is not the first time a police arrest has claimed a life. Police arrests using neck-locks have claimed several victims. Concern over the dangers of the stranglehold prompted the nation's chief police officers to recommend that officers should not use neck-locks as either part of control and restraint or as self-defence.

Shiji Lapite has become the focus of a campaign to establish the truth about neck-holds and their use. At a belated funeral last week Olumide Lapite, just six months old, slept on a comforting shoulder, unaware that the coffin at the head of the funeral procession in east London was his father's. Clutching her mother's hand, Oyin, now three, showed little sign of comprehending the significance of the occasion.

The speeches in Manor Park Methodist Church from family and friends, campaigners and clergy, spoke of violence and anger. That anger has been fuelled by what the family lawyer, Raju Bhatt, described as the "failure, inability, or unwillingness of all the authorities" to disclose any information - even the identity of the officers concerned. Unusually, they cannot obtain their own pathologist's fully informed opinion of the cause of death because he has been unable to gain access to the usual relevant material relating to the death, including post-mortem photographs and the results of detailed autopsy tests.

The family is now convinced Mr Lapite died after being held in a neck- lock of the type that senior police officers recognise as dangerous to the point of being lethal. Even last year - at the time when Mr Lapite was arrested - official guidance was that strangleholds should be used only as a last resort.

Those guidelines were issued last year by the Association of Chief Police Officers following a Police Complaints Authority inquiry and an inquest into the death of Oliver Pryce, another 30-year-old black man. 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.

The inquest jury decided he had been unlawfully killed but no charges or disciplinary action were brought. However, earlier this 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.

Police officers have not been trained, in recent years, to use neck- holds, but police officers skilled in martial arts or those who have served in the military have been known to use them. According to one senior officer, others have used them "instinctively" when involved in violent struggles.

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."

Under the recent proposals made by chief police officers neck-locks will be banned except in the most exceptional circumstances. Officers using the hold will have to justify that it was a "reasonable" use of force to protect themselves, not to effect an arrest. Ninety-eight per cent of arrests do not involve force.

Whether a neck-lock was used, and why, that December night in north London is still not known. The fact that the Lapite family is still waiting for an official explanation has illustrated the inadequacy of procedures for dealing with deaths in police custody, which run at a rate of about 50 a year.

The relatives of people who die in custody are often left in a legal no man's land. A full inquest will be held only if the Crown Prosecution Service rules out any criminal charges. Criminal cases arising out of deaths in custody are a rare event. The recent prosecution against the officers involved in the death of Joy Gardner illustrated the limitations of such prosecutions: they can only look at the responsibilities of individuals not at the culpability of the system as a whole.

But even if there is an inquest, it provides only a limited forum for investigation. The coroner is interested only in where, when and how the death occurred, not why. Deborah Coles of Inquest, the organisation that supports the families of those who die in custody, says the proceedings are weighted in favour of the authorities against the families: there is no legal aid to fund legal advice or representation for the family, while lawyers represent the police at the expense of taxpayers; there is no disclosure of evidence to the family; the coroner has discretion over what evidence to call; and verdicts available to juries are very limited in scope.

Professor Phil Scraton, of Edge Hill University College, Ormskirk, who has carried out one of the most detailed studies of deaths in custody, argues that in all deaths, where there are justifiable concerns, there should be a statutory right to an inquiry headed by a judge with full powers of subpoena and disclosure. Legal aid should be available so family lawyers can deal with evidence in an adversarial fashion, as in a court. The judge should have the power to investigate all the circumstances surrounding a death and to recommend a prosecution.

None of this bodes well for the Lapite family's quest for the truth. But yesterday Mrs Lapite was determined. "Even if Shiji had done something, it was not for the police to judge him. If they had to judge him, it was not for them to sentence him, and even then it was not for them to kill him."

Mrs Lapite is deeply religious. "You have to have faith at times like this ... At the end of the day I have to turn to God. He is the only one who can do justice. What I am praying for is that He leads us to do what is right." Given the shortcomings of the way deaths in custody are investigated, praying to God maybe the family's best hope.