Police forced to hold internal hearing on death in custody

Ian Herbert,North
Friday 21 February 2003 01:00

A police force has been ordered to put five of its officers through an internal disciplinary hearing over the death of a black ex-paratrooper – but has already decided that they will not lose their jobs and has excluded the dead man's family from the inquiry.

The Police Complaints Authority (PCA) indicated yesterday that it has overruled Humberside Police's own conclusion that no internal hearing was necessary over the death of Christopher Alder and has directed that the officers should be charged with neglect of duty.

But the force has already limited the outcome of the hearing by ruling that the officers shall not receive legal representation. The only penalties they may receive in such circumstances, if they are found guilty, are a caution, a reprimand or loss of pay.

Humberside also insisted yesterday that it was "normal procedure" for the public to be excluded from internal disciplinary hearings, despite the PCA's contention that the Alder family should be permitted to attend.

The new developments, greeted with dismay by Mr Alder's family and solicitors, extend the controversy surrounding one of the most scrutinised deaths in police custody. Mr Alder, 37, died face down in the custody suite at Queen's Gardens police station in Hull with his trousers and underpants around his knees, in April 1998. Two years later, an inquest jury ruled that he was unlawfully killed.

Five officers at the scene – Sgt John Dunn, 40, and PCs Neil Blakey, 42, Mark Ellerington, 37, Nigel Dawson, 41 and Matthew Barr, 38 – were cleared of manslaughter last year after their criminal trial collapsed because of inconsistent medical evidence.

But Sally Hawkins, a PCA officer, is now examining video evidence not presented to the jury, which appears to capture monkey noises being uttered as Mr Alder lay dying on the floor.

The Crown Prosecution Service said before the trial that it could not be established who made the noises and that there was "no prospect of being able to establish that the words demonstrate a racist attitude", so it did not present them to the jury. "We cannot argue that the chimpanzee monkey sounds are admissible," the CPS said.

The PCA said it was looking at the tape but had not reached a final decision. It is fairly unusual for the PCA to use its powers to force a disciplinary hearing on a police force. But the Alder family's solicitor, Ruth Bundey, said Humberside Police's decision, in effect, to remove the possibility of dismissing the officers had "pulverised the integrity" of the hearing.

Mr Alder's sister Janet, 41, of Burnley, Lancashire, said: "Having got away scot-free so far, maybe these officers will now be punished for their actions. There should still be a full inquiry [and] this is a start."

Ms Hawkins said there were legal and public interest reasons for the hearing to take place. The hearing will be in front of Humberside's Deputy Chief Constable, Gordon Clark. A date has not been set.

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