Sean Rigg: Can justice be delivered?
This week started the long-awaited inquest into the death-in-custody of Sean Rigg, a popular Brixton musician.
Nearly four years after his death in August 2008, the inquest begins following determined campaigning from the Rigg family for more openness and transparency from the Met Police and the IPCC amidst claims that key information had been unfairly withheld.
Sean Rigg, a talented musician and songwriter and sibling of five, had been suffering from severe mental illness from the age of 20 and had been formally diagnosed with schizophrenia. He lived in a high support community mental health hostel and his family was closely involved with his life and his mental health care.
On 21st August 2008, his behaviour was a cause for concern for the staff at his hostel who called 999 on several occasions. Rigg had a history of stopping his medication and prior to his arrest had again stopped his medication. Rigg left the hostel, attracting attention because he was not properly dressed and acting bizarrely. A member of the public called 999 and four officers, including two trainees, attended and Rigg was restrained, handcuffed and arrested, and placed inside a police van. The police van did not have any CCTV. He was placed inside the station yard and at some point soon after, was taken 'ill', and a police doctor and ambulance were called.
Speaking at the Inquest, Marcia Riggs-Samuel, Rigg's sister was visibly emotional and said,
The police came to our house and told us he had been arrested and taken to Brixton police station and had suddenly collapsed and died. They said they had no more information. We never heard from them again.
His family was not informed about his death for six hours, and they were not allowed to see Rigg's body for a further 36 hours. They have previously said that they were discouraged from seeing the body, only to later discover a number of visible injuries on Rigg's face that they had never been told about.
Rigg's family said:
We have been battling for nearly four years to find out the truth of what happened to our brother that night. Sean was doing great things in his life and it was devastating his life was cut short in this way. Sean should have been safe in the care of the police and the mental health services. We believe his death was wholly avoidable and welcome the chance for the evidence to be finally aired publicly and properly scrutinized.
The inquest will last for seven weeks and perhaps the most anticipated evidence will come from the never seen before CCTV footage of the minutes before his death which has been the subject of disputes between the Rigg family, Police and IPCC.
The jury is likely to hear from the four arresting police officers, the forensic medicine examiner who attended the police station, mental health professionals from the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust who were responsible for Rigg's care, and staff from the hostel where he lived.
Campaign group Inquest co-director Deborah Coles, who is supporting the Rigg family, said:
Inquest has significant concerns about how vulnerable people with mental health issues are treated by the Police. This is a deeply disturbing death and it is vital both for the family and the public that there is a rigorous, far-reaching investigation into the treatment of a vulnerable black man in need of care and protection. Sean Rigg's family has endured a painfully long wait for this inquest and an unacceptable and ongoing battle for funding. They need to find out the truth about how Sean died, and be reassured that action will be taken to prevent anything like this happening again.
According to figures published by the respected pressure group Inquest, there have been nearly 950 deaths in custody since 1990. Inquest has identified numerous deaths that raise issues about standards of care, such as deaths due to self-injury, alleged drunkenness or drug intoxication, or poor medical care, as well as deaths that raise issues of excessive use of force by police officers.
A total of 133 Black and ethnic minority people have died in police custody since 1990 - representing 14 per cent of all such deaths. And with mental health service users making up a staggering 61% of those who lose their lives while in the custody of the state, campaigners are hoping that the inquest into the tragic death of Sean Rigg will highlight the need for radical reform in the way this group is treated by the state.
Berny Torre, OBV Volunteer and Hackney Community Activist