Accountability and transparency needed to fight deaths in police custody

22 September 1999: Harry Stanley, a 46-year-old Scottish decorator, was shot dead by police after they received a phone call in which the caller mistakenly reported his accent as an Irish one, and the two-foot table leg he was carrying in his bag, as a sawn-off shotgun.

These deaths raise serious questions about the excessive use of force or restraint by police officers. The way they are investigated and how no-one has been held accountable is addressed in a report released today by Amnesty International.

'The present system of investigation and prosecution of deaths in police custody is seriously flawed,' the organisation continued.

Amnesty International welcomes today's announcement by the government to initiate a period of consultation on reform of investigation into serious police misconduct. However, the organisation is calling for a thorough examination of the inadequacies in the overall handling of disputed deaths in police custody, the different components of which contribute to a pattern of impunity for human rights violations.

'Reforming the investigative procedures will not be enough to allay public concern about the lack of police accountability,' Amnesty International said.

'Such reform must be carried out within the much wider context of all those aspects of the criminal justice system which come into play when a death in police custody occurs,' the organisation added.

'There is a need to specifically address issues such as prosecution practices, transparency at all stages, inadequate legislation on the use of force, and the disadvantaged position of victims' families at inquests.'

The present system, with police officers investigating alleged crimes of their colleagues, cannot guarantee thorough, impartial and independent investigations. The fact that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decides on whether to bring criminal charges against a police officer in a death in custody case on the basis of such an investigation poses serious doubts as to the impartiality and independence of such decisions.

Furthermore, practising lawyers have repeatedly noted that the CPS appears to adopt a higher standard when examining evidence in cases where police officers are involved, than when looking at evidence to bring prosecutions against ordinary citizens.

'All people should be equal before the law, including state agents who are responsible for upholding the rule of law,' Amnesty International said.

Even the inquest system - the last chance for the deceased's family to understand how their loved one died - suffers from the same inherent limitations that flaw CPS decisions. The coroner conducts the inquest on the basis of the police investigation report, and the family are hampered in their ability to challenge effectively disputable or controversial evidence.

'What is worrying is the weakness of the deceased's family's position at the inquest,' Amnesty International said. 'Not only is crucial information withheld from them about the findings of the investigation, but they are not provided with legal aid whereas police officers are represented at the state's expense.'

'Finally, we must not lose sight of the risks posed by the use of dangerous restraint techniques, which can lead to death from asphyxia, and which are not being adequately addressed,' Amnesty International added.

'It is time the UK government lived up to its obligations under international law to guarantee the right to life, and to investigate fully, thoroughly and impartially any loss of life due to actions by law enforcement officials,' the organisation added.

'The UK government had so far failed to do this, despite numerous damning reports by international authoritative bodies - such as the UN Committee against Torture and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture.'

Amnesty International is urging the UK government to initiate a wider inquiry into all the different aspects of the criminal justice system which deal with police crimes in order to ensure that impartial investigations are carried out and that perpetrators of human rights violations, including unlawful killings, are brought to justice.

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