Morning Star: Did duo die from police brutality?

To read the original article in full see: The Morning Star Website

Thursday 16 September 2010 by Paddy McGuffin

Human rights campaigners have said that serious questions must be asked after the deaths of two mental health patients in a matter of days following police restraint.

Olaseni Lewis, a 23-year-old student from south London, and 52-year-old Colin Holt from Gillingham were both restrained by police in separate incidents on August 31 this year.

Mr Holt collapsed and died after being restrained by officers at his home while Mr Lewis suffered fatal injuries having been restrained by up to eight police officers at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Bromley.

While the details of Mr Holt's death are unclear it is understood he left the hospital where he had been sectioned and returned home. Hospital staff had then called the police who entered his flat and restrained him.

Mr Lewis is the latest in a series of young black men to have died in similar circumstances. Other high-profile cases include those of Sean Rigg who died in police custody in Brixton in 2008 and Roger Sylvester, who died after being restrained by police in a psychiatric institution in 1999.

A student at Kingston University, Mr Lewis had no history of mental illness but a few days before his death his family and friends noticed that he was behaving erratically and sought professional help.

He was admitted as a vulnerable voluntary patient at the Bethlem Royal Hospital on the evening of August 31. Within hours he collapsed after being restrained by police officers who had been called by hospital staff. He was taken to hospital but was pronounced dead on September 4.

A spokesman for South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, which has responsibility for Bethlem hospital, said it was investigating the incident as a priority.

Inquest co-director Deborah Coles said restraint-related deaths were disproportionately high for both black and minority ethnic people and mental health patients.

"The dangers of restraint are all too evident and are now included in all police and hospital training. There is frankly no excuse for excessive restraint," she said.

Commenting on Mr Lewis's death, Ms Coles said: "This is a deeply disturbing death and it is vital that there is a rigorous, far-reaching investigation into the fatal restraint of a vulnerable black man in need of care and protection."

Institute for Race Relations spokeswoman Harmit Athwal told the Star: "Black people are disproportionately represented within the mental health system but there is also an issue of how they are perceived by the mental health staff and police they come into contact with."

She added that in both cases the levels of restraint used needed to be investigated and called for a full investigation of all uses of restraint in custody.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission has confirmed it is investigating both deaths.

The IPCC has been criticised for perceived failings in several recent investigations including that into the death of Mr Rigg.

Ms Athwal said: "Obviously the IPCC says it's an independent body but the reality of what follows their investigations speaks volumes."