On Friday 7 March, the inquest into the death of 39-year-old Ghanaian Joseph Crentsil recorded a verdict of accidental death. The verdict meant that the jury decided Joseph came by his death ‘unintentionally or unexpectedly’.
Joseph died on 25 November 2001 after falling from a third floor balcony of a block of flats in Streatham, south London. The inquest jury was told how, at about 3.55pm on a Sunday afternoon, immigration and police officers called at the third-floor flat looking for a Portuguese man called Fontez Garcia. They did not find Garcia and William Addison, the man who opened the door, invited them in. The two immigration officers began questioning the people in the flat, including Joseph. Within fifteen minutes of their arrival, Joseph was found seriously injured on the ground floor. He had climbed out of the kitchen window onto the walkway outside the flat and then over the balcony, from which he had fallen. He was taken to Kings College hospital and was pronounced dead at 5.23pm.
These were the basic facts surrounding Joseph’s death but evidence of what happened during the fifteen minutes prior to Joseph’s fall all differed in very significant details. There was conflicting evidence about where the police officers were when Joseph fell, whether Joseph was detained and whether officers had grounds to question the men in the flat.
Was Joseph detained?
The possibility of a verdict of unlawful killing was not presented to the inquest jury. The coroner ruled that an unlawful killing verdict could only be considered if Joseph had been detained. Barristers – for the Metropolitan Police officers, the Metropolitan Police commissioner and the immigration service – successfully argued that Joseph had not been detained.
PC Kemp testified that he saw ‘a black male [Joseph] appear from the toilet’, whom he asked to wait until immigration officers had spoken to him. Kemp was later recalled to the stand to explain discrepancies in a statement and his notebook. When originally asked if he had stopped Joseph from leaving, he had replied no. His notebook, however, gave a more detailed account. When questioned again, he admitted that he had stopped Joseph from leaving the flat and had told him twice to wait until an immigration officer had spoken to him.
An immigration officer, Sarah Yates, who was also in the hallway, said ‘I heard a noise and noticed a man I hadn’t seen before had come out of the toilet and was making for the front door in a hurried fashion… it was clear he wanted to leave… which was suggestive to me he was an immigration offender’. The officers allege Joseph was then taken to the living room to be questioned by immigration officer Joan Noel. She claimed she asked Joseph his name and he said that he did not understand. She then received a phone-call and alleges Joseph got up from the sofa and left the room. Two of the men, Addison and Felix Ampomah, claim they did not see Joseph in the living room at all. Ampomah, in fact, claimed that he had seen Joseph walking quickly in the hallway towards the kitchen and a man with ‘no hair’ running after him.
How close were the officers?
There were also other inconsistencies in the evidence given to the inquest. For example, the police officers gave differing evidence as to where they were when Joseph went over the balcony.
PC Anthony Day, one of the original officers who went to the flat, heard another police officer shout ‘somebody’s out of the window’. He and two other police officers (Williams and Smith who had responded to PC Kemp’s call) gave chase. PC Day also said he had seen Joseph running along the balcony, with PC Williams ‘right behind him’. Joseph then allegedly ‘climbed over the [balcony barrier] in one fluid motion… he lowered himself from the bars… it was very quick… I think he let go because he wanted to.’
The other police officers remembered the events differently. Smith entered the flat and saw ‘two males cooking and eating food’ in the kitchen. He closed the front door and made his way back to the kitchen where he saw ‘one of the two men was basically leaving through the kitchen window… all I could see was his rear and legs’. He shouted ‘there’s one going out of the window’. He also claimed that the police officers that gave chase to Joseph were within the ‘parameters’ of the doorway before Joseph had fallen, and not ‘right behind him’ as Day had claimed.
PC Williams, after taking the radio call from Kemp, heard PC Smith shout, ran back to the kitchen, where he too saw Joseph’s feet and ran back up the hallway and out of the front door. He shouted ‘don’t jump!’ as he saw Joseph climbing over the balcony. He also claimed ‘that it appeared to be a deliberate act’.
A neighbour’s recollections did not match those of the officers. She lived opposite the block of flats and arrived at her home at around 4pm. She heard a male voice – ‘a long drawn out shout’, which sounded like ‘watch’. She looked towards Joseph’s flats and didn’t see anything. She then made her way up to her flat (a 1-2 minute walk) and then heard a ‘loud thud’. She saw three or four people on the top landing and a ‘lump’ on the floor. ‘One walked towards the stairwell and the others were just standing there.’ The police officers all claimed that only three officers had chased after Joseph and they all had immediately rushed to give Joseph first aid.
Use of force
Throughout the inquest, there were numerous questions relating to the damage caused by police officers breaking down doors in the flat and searching rooms. The police and immigration officers all admitted that the doors were kicked in but, at all times, insisted that it occurred after Joseph fell. Two of the men in the flat claimed that doors were forced before Joseph fell. If that were true, then Joseph would indeed have been extremely scared. (It is also probable that Joseph heard the radio message that PC Kemp made to the other officers: words to the effect that none of the ‘males’ had been checked and were not allowed to leave the address.)
After the raid, the men were taken to Brixton police station where they were questioned until the early hours of the following morning. As a result, a number of the men questioned at the house are taking civil cases against the Met police.
Grounds to question?
Despite the fact that the Immigration Services’ primary target, Fontez Garcia, was not at the flat, officers maintained that they still felt it necessary to question the other men there. The police and immigration officers allege that Addison told them Garcia lived there but was out at work. Addison denied saying this. During the raid, at no time were any of the men arrested – they were helping officers with their enquiries. Yates said her suspicions were aroused because the men were first ‘evasive about who was living at the property’ and then ‘too eager’ to provide information.
The inquest heard that Chapter 46 of the Immigration Services’ Operation Enforcement Manual allows officers to question people living in a communal residence other than a named offender to ‘eliminate them from their enquiries’. (The officers claimed they also had additional intelligence from the Home Office that two Ghanaian nationals, refused leave to enter the UK, were also living at the address.) This rule basically allows immigration officers to go on ‘fishing raids’ if they have what they consider to be ‘reasonable grounds’ – to suspect that a person is an immigration offender.
At the time of Joseph’s death, police officers attended all private-address immigration visits because immigration officers did not have powers of arrest. But they do now. Over 80 per cent of immigration officers in London are now arrest-trained. They conduct visits in much the same way that they did when Joseph died except for ‘drive-bys’ in which immigration officers check out their intended location by first driving past.
Other deaths in similar circumstances
Joy Gardner died four days after immigration officials and police from the specialist Extradition Unit SO1(3) of the Metropolitan police force gagged her with 13 feet of tape and bound her with a leather body-belt, during an attempted deportation in August 1993. After her death, a review of authorised restraint techniques was conducted, and revised guidance was issued to all police forces. However, at least five other people have died since, as a result of immigration and police raids on homes. Like Joseph, who was fearful of being deported, the others risked everything to avoid being caught and met their deaths.
In 1994, Kwanele Siziba died after police officers called at her flat to serve her brother-in-law with a summons. She thought it was immigration officers coming to deport her – she fell 150 feet to her death. Joseph Nnalue also fell to his death that year. Police and immigration officers, acting on a tip-off, were questioning Joseph about his status. Then, in 1996, Noorjahan Begum fell 30 feet to her death after two immigration officers called at the flat where she was staying. They were actually looking for a male offender. Later that year, Fred Akiyemi met his death after falling from the balcony of his fifth floor flat. Peckham police were visiting his flat as part of an ‘ongoing inquiry’.
Joseph Crentsil was the latest victim.