Olaseni Lewis, known to his family as Seni, was a young black man aged 23 years, engaged in post-graduate Masters studies in IT and Business Management at Kingston University. He had no prior history of mental illness or any untoward behaviour until the evening of Sunday 29 August 2010 when his family and friends noticed that he was behaving strangely, alternating between calm and agitated phases.
They sought professional help, resulting eventually in his admission as a vulnerable voluntary patient at the Bethlem Royal Hospital early in the evening of Tuesday 31 August 2010. Within hours of leaving him at the hospital, however, they were to learn that he had collapsed after being restrained by police officers who had been called by hospital staff. Seni was taken by ambulance to Mayday Hospital where brain stem death was confirmed following tests on 3 and 4 September 2010.
Seni’s family and friends are determined to ensure that all the circumstances of his tragic death are brought under proper scrutiny so that they can obtain the answers that they need from those responsible for the fatal restraint and those to whom their loved one had been entrusted. To that end, they will be keeping a close eye on the investigations that are said to have been launched by the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
Deborah Coles, co-director of INQUEST, that is working with the family and their lawyer said:
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 fatal restraint of a vulnerable black man in need of care and protection. INQUEST has worked on far too many cases where dangerous restraint has resulted in the deaths of vulnerable people, a disproportionate number of whom are from black and minority ethnic communities.
Background case history
• Seni was a fit and healthy young man with no prior history of mental illness. He was described in evidence as a ‘gentle giant’ who stood up to bullies. His father spoke of him as a ‘serial hugger’. He was taken to hospital by his family following a serious decline in his mental health over 48 hours. The jury heard evidence that he was agitated, distressed and paranoid. CCTV images showed him at the Mayday Hospital running around asking for help, “full of anxiety and fear”. He was described as hearing voices and was shouting for help asking, “what is happening to me?”
• Seni was taken to Maudsley Hospital for assessment, and he was then admitted to the Bethlem Royal Hospital as an ‘informal’ patient, on the understanding that he could leave when he wished and his family would be called if any issue arose. However, following his family’s departure with the end of visiting hours, he became increasingly frightened, agitated and disorientated. He tried to leave, but he was stopped, and he kicked a door. The police were called by hospital staff because of ‘criminal damage’. His family were not contacted.
• Upon their arrival, police officers handcuffed Seni and, at the request of the medical staff, moved him to a seclusion room. There he was restrained face down on the floor by a total of 11 police officers over a sustained period of approximately 30-40 minutes (across two periods of restraint).
• Throughout much of the second period of restraint (lasting some 20 minutes), Seni was bound in two sets of leg restraints (around his ankles and legs) and two sets of handcuffs (linking his left arm in front of his face/neck with his right arm behind his back). During his ordeal he was struck three times with the end of a police baton in what officers described as a ‘distraction technique’. In his disorientated state, Seni was heard saying things like, “get the dogs off me”.
• The police officers’ evidence described a chaotic and shambolic restraint with no one officer taking the lead and a lack of clarity on what they were seeking to achieve. They were unable to explain why they persisted with a restraint which was inherently dangerous and which went against all police training and guidance. They insisted that, in the interests of Seni’s own safety, they had no option but to maintain the restraint until he stopped struggling. In effect, this meant that they maintained the restraint until Seni became unresponsive. Even then, instead of attending to his welfare, they chose to leave the room, apparently because they believed that he may have been ‘faking it’.
• Seni never regained consciousness. His family were finally contacted when he was transferred to Croydon University Hospital. He was eventually pronounced dead on 3 September 2010.
Notes to editors:
INQUEST provides specialist advice on deaths in custody or detention or involving state failures in England and Wales. This includes a death in prison, in police custody or following police contact, in immigration detention or psychiatric care. INQUEST’s policy and parliamentary work is informed by its casework and we work to ensure that the collective experiences of bereaved people underpin that work. Its overall aim is to secure an investigative process that treats bereaved families with dignity and respect; ensures accountability and disseminates the lessons learned from the investigation process in order to prevent further deaths.
INQUEST is represented on the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody and the Ministry of Justice Coroner Service Stakeholder Forum.
Please refer to INQUEST the organisation in all capital letters in order to distinguish it from the legal hearing.