How Narative is Used to Justify Deaths after Police Contact

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Deaths after police contact describe any death during or after police intervention and are investigated by two agencies: the Coroners Court and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). The role of Corners court is unique in the sense that they’re purpose is not to ascribe guilt or liability, but merely to find to investigate suspicious deaths in a public forum, and to learn lessons which may enable the prevention of future deaths. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights imposes a procedural obligation on the UK to conduct an effective, impartial, independent and prompt investigation into deaths for which the State might be responsible. This includes deaths by a state agent, in state detention or where owed a duty of care by the state. Deaths after police contact often have a multi-causal nature, meaning that narrative verdicts suit them much more than standard shorter verdicts. These verdicts allow jurors to set out the key facts that they believe are relevant to the persons death. Through institution structures, language and framing narratives are constructed to absolve any liability from the police and portray their actions as rational and reasonable.

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In the years between 2004 and 2015 1539 instances of DAPC in England and Wales were recorded, however charity INQUEST found no prosecutions for murder or manslaughter since they began monitoring in 1990 and only one successful prosecution relating to DAPC in any kind. The consistent refusal to ascribe any form of liability to the police for perpetuates the narrative of police DAPC are always necessary and that those who have died as a result are deserving victims. Prospective jurors are likely to build a notion of ‘brave police officers, who give so much to protect ‘us’ from dangerous others and have suffered enough from this tragedy, ought to be protected from criminal sanction’.

Narrative verdicts are constraint within their nature, by purpose they are not assign guilt, therefore are more non-adversarial hearings to determine the cause of death of the deceased. And it is the belief that these hearings should remain purely inquisitorial that has denied the automatic right for families to receive legal representation. Currently there is a means tested legal aid granted for which is described by families had intrusive and unfair, with many not being eligible. It is impossible to justify the belief that the families do not need legal representation particularly when the “all of various branches of the state will attend inquests bristling with senior barristers and solicitors to represent them and ultimately, all paid for by the taxpayer. For example, at the Inquest into the death of Darren Lyons which opened on 31 October 2016, there were eight separate legal teams” (Angiolini 2017, 214). Those families who do not receive legal aid and find themselves unable to afford legal representation themselves have to take on roles expected of a legal professional including cross-examining the state while they themselves come against seasoned barristers, all whilst relieving a the emotional trauma attributed to the grieving process, which is simply unjust. This creates massive inequality leaving the deceased under presented and allowing the state to absconder blame, ultimately justifying DAPC it could also be argued that this inequality in arms is conflicting with the very obligation set out in Article 2 of ECHR by not providing investigations that are effective or impartial.

One way in which a coroner’s court achieves a narrative is be its use of constructing characters from the deceased. The deceased are often portrayed as dangers, out of control and threats making the police action seem reasonable and necessary. The verdict delivered by a jury is often influenced on the way the deceased is portrayed, however they are the only person within the events who will ever be portrayed via their characteristics. In 2018/19 10/16 of those who died in or following police custody, and 104/152 who died after police contact were reported to have mental health concerns. The following are two examples taken from the dataset used ,was a 28-year-old male suffering from schizophrenia and diabetes. He was 6ft tall and obese. Case 61: The deceased was an epileptic. whose compliance with his medication was variable. Baker went on to add that most of the people within the dataset a framed within as substance abusers or those with mental health issues. To a juror this is constructing a character in terms of their pathologies, these conditions or details of the deceased’s’ past will weigh heavy in their minds and foreshadows the events which transpire, almost as if these conditions make the end result i.e. death inevitable. A contentious cause of death used in narrative verdicts for death after police contact is ‘Excited Delirium’ (ED) all though being returned in a verdict of the causes of many DAPC there is much debate over whether this can be considered valid. There are no standardised symptoms with different researchers choosing to include or exclude from the following: ‘bizarre, violent, and agitated behaviour incoherent speech, hyperactivity; extreme endurance and unusual strength, intense paranoia. Individuals with ED are often hyperthermic and have a tendency to rapidly go from being extremely agitated to calm. 

Controversially the World Health Organisation does not recognise ED as a condition therefore it does feature in the International Classification of Diseases (the main diagnostical tool used by UK health professionals), ED is also not recognised by the department of health.However, ED is recognised in the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) reports, the Faculty of Forensic and Legal Medicine , and British Medical Association Guidelines. The calls into question how fair is it to raise this a potential cause of death to a lay jury when many organisations and experts cannot agree on a definition or even to classify it, this coupled with wide ranging symptoms calls into question how legitimate this can be for a death following police contact or is it a way to construct a justified death at the hands of the police? The above discussion proves particularly worrying when in another report titled ‘Mental health, the use of force and deaths after police contact in England’ the issues of a lack of training, excessive or improper uses of power and transportation in police cars instead of an ambulance all have negative effect on situations involving those with mental health issues during incidents which lead to their death. 

 However the acts or omissions of police almost become immaterial facts as the death of the deceased was foreshadowed from when their were first framed as ‘accident waiting to happen’ lead actor in the narrative thus justifying the deceased’s death at the hands of the police. Explaining deaths away as implications of mental health, despite flaws in the way police are trained to deal with those suffering inhibits the ability for institutions to learn from and prevent future cases of DAPC, which is said to be is one of the main purposes of Coronial Inquests.  

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