A police commander has warned that the case of Sean Rigg, who died in custody at Brixton police station, will be repeated unless there is more investment in mental health services.
Sean Rigg, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, died in 2008 after police used “unnecessary force” to restrain him, an inquest found last month.
However, Neil Basu, the Metropolitan Police’s area commander for south east London, warned at a public meeting last week that the tragedy could be repeated.
“A police station is an absolute last resort for someone suffering from serious mental illness,” he said.
“My personal concern is that last resort position is becoming more and more common and if we continue to underinvest in mental health provision, police officers who have not even been born yet will be faced with this dilemma on a daily basis in the future.
“If we don’t get this right now, we are going to see more of these tragedies,” he said.
Basu said Sean Rigg was “a decent man, suffering in a way that very few of us can comprehend, and his life should not have ended in this way.”
At the meeting, Sean’s family received a verbal apology from a director from the mental health trust that was responsible for Sean when he died.
Jill Lockett, a service director at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, said: “It was not OK that we didn’t engage with the family in the two weeks prior to Sean’s death.
“Sean could have and should have had a mental health act assessment and that would most likely have ensured he was admitted to hospital, and for that we’ve apologised to the family.
“Our apology is heartfelt first and foremost,” she said.
However, Sean’s sister Samantha Rigg-David said: “We haven’t had an official apology yet. There’s a promise, but we haven’t received one.”
“If we could see some remorse, some apology, we could start to move on,” she said.
Speaking about the conduct of the police, she said: “I really don’t believe that authority should be brutal. There’s a way to be respected and authoritative, and the police really need to get that back.”
She warned that “things do seriously need to change quickly” to prevent other families from suffering similar tragedies.
In an emotional speech her sister, Marcia Rigg, outlined what she said were the deeper cultural problems that needed to be addressed.
“Public confidence needs to be gathered between the communities and the agencies,” she said. “Until you’ve got that grasped you’re not going to get anywhere and there’s just going to be complete and total community unrest and more riots, because basically the riots dating back from the 80s have all stemmed from deaths in police custody. It’s time to stop.
“The problem is that the police are treating people with mental health problems like they’re criminals and they’re not criminals, they’re human beings, they’ve got somebody that loves them and they’re being killed,” she said.
Marcia said the problem of deaths in police custody was “not just a black issue – it’s a class issue.”
She said police and other agencies should make more effort to consult the families of their service users. “They can give you first hand what the problems are, the cultural differences and I think you won’t be able to work without that,” she said.
However, she said she had not seen “any major changes” in the way services worked since Sean’s death.
In August a jury at Southwark Coroner’s Court returned a damning narrative verdict at the inquest into Sean’s death.
It outlined a series of errors from the mental health trust and Lambeth police. On September 28 the coroner is due to make his recommendations to the authorities involved.