‘I can’t breathe!’ – Kevin Clarke’s death in police custody case to be reopened

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Supporters of justice for Kevin Clarke (right) on a United Families and Friends Campaign march in 2018, the year he died after being restrained by nine policemen

THE MOTHER of a mentally ill black man who died after being restrained by up to nine Metropolitan Police Service officers has said she hopes those involved in her son’s death will finally be held accountable after the case was reopened by the police watchdog yesterday.

Kevin Clarke gasped ‘I can’t breathe’ after police were called during the incident in March 2018 while he was having a mental health crisis. He lost consciousness shortly afterwards and was taken by ambulance to Lewisham Hospital, south east London, where he died.

The investigation into Clarke’s death was seen as the first significant restraint case for the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which replaced the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) in January 2018 amid anger and mistrust over the investigations into the deaths of several black men in police custody.

The IOPC has announced it is to reopen its inquiry after it admitted Clarke’s words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ were recorded on police body-cam footage but not explored with the police officers when they were interviewed by watchdog officials.

Deborah Coles, director of the charity Inquest, said: ‘It defies belief that a black man can die at the hands of the police with audio recordings saying he cannot breathe and the IOPC fail to interrogate this with police officers. What an indictment of the investigation undertaken. This would not have been exposed without the family’s legal representation at the inquest.’

Clarke’s mother, Wendy, welcomed the move by the IOPC but described it as a ‘flawed institution’ and questioned whether her family would be satisfied by the final outcome.

She said: ‘Our family are happy that the IOPC have decided to reopen their investigation. We are not overly optimistic about any future findings by the IOPC because we believe they are a flawed institution. We are however still hopeful that those police officers involved in Kevin’s death will be held to account by this investigation.’

The decision to reopen the case follows the inquest into Clarke’s death last year where the jury delivered a narrative conclusion that he had died as a result of acute behavioural disturbance, in a relapse of schizophrenia, leading to exhaustion and cardiac arrest. The restraint used by officers, which caused him to struggle, was cited as one of several contributing factors.

The jury said: ‘It is highly likely that at least one officer heard Mr Clarke say “I can’t breathe,” on one of the occasions he repeated it. Despite this, no action was taken other than one officer saying: “You’ve got to breathe, you’ve got to breathe, breathe, deep breaths”.’

Cyrilia Davies Knight, solicitor for the family from Saunders Law, said of the reopening of the investigation: ‘This is a positive step in the family’s pursuit of accountability following Kevin’s death. It has taken far too long for the IOPC to come to this decision and they only considered reopening the investigation after pressure from us. The IOPC should not have closed their original investigation in the first place, but now that the investigation has been reopened, we hope that it will be thorough.’