Former PCC says Beds Police must 'provide reassurance' to Luton's black community after Leon Briggs' inquest

Former Beds Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Olly Martins says the force must do more to reassure Luton's black community after the outcome of Leon Briggs' inquest last week.

Wednesday, 17th March 2021, 2:42 pm
Updated Wednesday, 17th March 2021, 3:50 pm

The dad-of-two, from Luton, died on November 4, 2013, after he was physically detained and held in police custody while suffering from a drug-induced psychosis.

Last Friday, a jury at his inquest held in Milton Keynes reached a conclusion that his death was ‘contributed to by neglect’.

Olly Martins, who served as Beds PCC from 2012 to 2016, said: “I can well remember the anger and mistrust from the black community in Luton in 2013 when Leon Briggs died.

Olly Martins was PCC of Bedfordshire from 2012 to 2016

"The extended period of the investigation, coming now with this verdict, is unlikely to have improved the situation.

“The current commissioner and Chief Constable therefore need to be much more visible following the inquest's conclusion, providing reassurance that lessons have been learned which will prevent this ever happening again.

"In the light of concerns about racial inequalities, our ethnic minority communities also need assurance that prejudice plays no part in how Bedfordshire Police serves the public and that systemic racism is being tackled.

"Simply saying you’re not available to speak with the media, posting a statement on YouTube and hoping the difficult questions from this case will just vanish is unlikely to improve trust in the police from our ethnic minority communities."

The death of Mr Briggs was one of the most controversial issues facing Beds Police during Mr Martins' tenure as Bedfordshire PCC.

The case attracted national headlines and Mr Martins was temporarily suspended from the Labour Party himself in 2014 after disclosing details of the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation.

He added: “In November 2013, the then Chief Constable Colette Paul and myself attended an understandably heated public meeting in Luton Carnival Arts Centre.

"We faced the music in a very difficult few hours but it was the right approach.

"This experience influenced our decisions to prioritise introducing the mental health triage car, banning routine use of custody for people in mental health crisis, the roll out of body worn video for officers, and work to improve the ethnic diversity of the force, all measures to seek to build trust in our police.

“It is good to see the use the police are now making of Zoom and Teams to engage with the public and I am sure that at this time of lockdown such means could be used by the PCC and Chief to respond to the public’s questions on this matter.

"I’m sure this would be welcomed in the local community.”

Mr Briggs was of mixed race heritage and after his inquest, his mother Margaret told media she believed race had been an issue.

She said: “We think that Leon’s race was a factor in the way he was treated by the police.

"He was treated as someone who posed a threat rather than someone in need of help."

In response to Mr Martins' comments, a spokesman for current Beds PCC Kathryn Holloway stated that both she and Beds Police are engaged in community meetings all week with councillors, faith and neighbourhood leaders.

Beds Police Deputy Chief Constable Trevor Rodenhurst added: “We understand how this case has impacted on the community and it highlighted a clear lack of trust in policing at that time.

“We have worked hard to rebuild that trust and introduced a dedicated community cohesion team to foster strong partnerships and relations with the public in Luton and across Bedfordshire.

“We now have a number of initiatives where we invite independent scrutiny from the public, such as panels to review our use of force and stop and search.

“We also have an Independent Advisory Group and the Chief Constable has an advisory panel - both made up from members of our community, and we open our doors to offer ride alongs and hold events where people can find out more about the force.

“Another step to show that transparency and build confidence was inviting television programme 24 Hours in Police Custody into the force, to show unedited what happens behind the scenes.

“We know there will be questions from the public following the conclusion of the inquest and in light of the jury's findings which is why the Chief Constable and his chief officer team have been holding virtual meetings with key members of the public through this week and that is continuing.

“That dialogue allows us to explain the jury's findings and what changes we have made since 2013 in how we care for those in crisis. It also gives community members the chance to ask questions and seek reassurances on how we will continue to improve.

“This includes working much closer with health professionals to better assess those in crisis at an earlier stage and get them the treatment they need.

“These improvements in our working practices to date have meant that in the 12 months to January this year, not a single person was taken into custody here in Bedfordshire as a place of safety for a mental health crisis.”