Two years before George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Kevin Clarke—a 35 year old black man—died after contact with police in Catford, south London.
In police body-cam footage of the incident, Clarke can be heard telling officers, “I can’t breathe. I’m going to die.” He died in police custody at Lewisham hospital later that day.
Last week an inquest jury found that the police’s inappropriate use of restraints on Clarke contributed to his death.
The inquest jury at Southwark coroner’s court on Friday found the cause of death to be acute behavioural disturbance leading to exhaustion. They said the manner in which the police restrained Clarke “probably more than minimally or trivially” contributed to his death.
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’.
“Failure to remove restraints at this point was contrary to guidance and training.”
Clarke, known as KC, had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2002. He was living in supported housing at the time of his death on 9 March 2018.
Police had been called twice to Clarke that day because of concerns by workers at the housing scheme that his mental health was deteriorating.
On the first occasion he was standing in the street holding a cup of drinking yoghurt.
He told police he was “just chilling”. Police decided he was not ill enough to be sectioned and said he was not showing any risk to himself or to members of the public.
He was then found lying down on the edge of a school playing field. Police surrounded him as he lay in the mud and then restrained him using two sets of handcuffs to pin his arms behind his back.
The restraint lasted 33 minutes.
Clarke’s family and his lawyers say that at no time was he a threat to the police officers surrounding him.
PC Lee Pidgeon told the inquest that Clarke had become “a bit fidgety” so the use of handcuffs was appropriate as he was showing signs of acute behavioural disorder.
During the inquest the counsel for Clarke’s family, Prof Leslie Thomas QC, asked why Clarke had been “ignored” when he said he could not breathe. Pidgeon replied, “I cannot answer that sir. I don’t know.”
Along with the restraint footage Clarke is also shown being walked and at times dragged to a waiting ambulance. Police pulled his hood over his head, making it harder to monitor his condition.
The jury found nine separate failures. They include the failure of the London ambulance service to provide basic medical care and failures of the community mental health team to manage Clarke’s relapse.
They concluded that the police restraint was not appropriate because it was not based on a balanced risk assessment and because Clarke was generally cooperative. “It appears Mr Clarke was generally cooperative and responsive up until the point when officer laid hands on him,” they said.
Wendy Clarke, Kevin’s mother, said on behalf of the family, “KC was a loving, kind, caring person who always looked out for others. But those involved in his death saw him as the stereotyped big black violent mentally unwell man.
“KC was restrained unnecessarily and with disproportionate force. There was a lack of engagement, communication and urgency by all those who owed him a duty of care.
“Despite the fact that KC can be heard saying ‘I can’t breathe’ and ‘I’m going to die’ they ignored him. So to hear officers say they would not do anything different is shocking.
“My son lost his life because of a number of missed chances by the mental health team, the accommodation provider, the police and paramedics who all stood by and let KC die.
“In his memory we want to see accountability, and real change, not just in training, but the perception and response to black people by the police and other services.
“We want mental health services better funded so the first point of response is not just reliant on the police. There must not be another George Floyd, Sean Rigg or Kevin Clarke.”
Her words underline just how much change is needed before black lives truly matter.