Twenty years is a long time; almost half my life now, but some things continue to shape our lives for many years after they happened.
I was going to write something new about this, but decided instead to repost something buried away in an old version of my website. You may also want to read a related post from last summer, with my thoughts regarding the lack of charges in the Ian Tomlinson affair, which contains a bit more about the PCA investigation.
There is one member of the family that merits special mention; Patrick Whitfield, my late twin brother. His death and the events surrounded it changed my outlook on many things. When bad things happen, you may suddenly realise that the things you believe in really aren’t quite what you thought.
Patrick died when his life support system was turned off on the 5th of March 1991. He had sustained fatal head injuries, resulting in brain death, after “leaving a police van through the rear doors, while it was in motion.” He was taken to Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge, where my mother and I waited from Thursday until Tuesday the 5th, though it was clear from Friday the 1st that he would not survive.
As is usual when there is a death in custody, an investigation was conducted. And, as is the case in the UK, that was carried out by another police force and, as family, we’re not entitled to see the results of that investigation. The officers involved in stopping my brother, who had failed a breath test, would not answer questions at the inquest. The investigating officer told us “There’s nothing secret in the report, but it is confidential.” The Crown Prosecution Service wrote suggesting that “although an offence had been committed, it was not of sufficent gravity to merit prosecution,” and Cambridgeshire Constabulary spelt our surname wrong when they wrote to offer condolences.
This horrific experience, and the careless attitude of assorted state agencies, fundamentally changed my view of many things. I was unemployed at the time, and since I missed signing on because of being in hospital, and then arranging a funeral, I lost all benefits. I was told by the unemployments office that you are allowed one day not looking for work in the event of a death in the family. If I’d known I was going to be away for longer, I should have filled in a holiday form!
It may be that the officers involved did everything by the book. Perhaps the book is wrong, or perhaps they did make a mistake. But without being allowed to see what the investigation revealed, we will never know.
We need an open and accountable police force – that doesn’t mean a witch hunt, it means answers to simple questions, like “Who said what to whom on the night? Who did what, and when?”
We need a social security system that doesn’t withdraw benefits from people just when they need them. When bad things happen to people, they should be supported – not told to fill out a holiday form. It seems to me that bureaucracy is so intent on keeping figures down that it’s more important to stop a claim than consider whether or not someone needs help.
Inquest is an organisation that campaigns about deaths in custody.