Clarissa Powell, Mikey's mother : Image credit Ken Fero

by Tippa Naphtali, June 2018
Twitter: @TippaNewsSpotta

It was a lazy Sunday morning of 7th September 2003 when I received the devastating news from my sister that my cousin, Michael Lloyd Powell (known as Mikey), had died during a violent restraint by West Midlands police officers. This news was to mark the start of a 15-year journey that would have a significant impact on my life to this day.

Mikey was a hard-working and loving father of three boys, and was well-known and respected in the local community. He was experiencing a severe psychotic episode when police officers were called by my distraught aunt, Clarissa Powell. After a brief verbal altercation, the attending officers drove a police car at Mikey knocking him down, then beat him with batons, CS gassed him, and violently restrained him. Knowing he was injured, they drove him to a police station not a hospital. He died of asphyxiation after been restrained face down on the floor of the police van.

When two worlds collide

I had worked in the fields of mental health and police consultation in London for many years prior to my cousins’ death, and these collided tragically in September 2003. Such was the impact of his death, I made the decision to move back to my home town of Birmingham after 28 years living and working in London; so that I could be at the forefront of my family’s fight for justice, as well as to ensure changes were implemented in both policing and mental health practice. I was determined that Mikey’s life and death would be remembered with a lasting legacy.

It was also during this period that our family was introduced to INQUEST, who were to provide invaluable support to my family for many years to follow. Initially this was through the dedicated involvement of INQUEST’s late caseworker Gilly Mundy, and continued to this day via the Family Reference Group in particular. My brother Benjamin Zephaniah, who already had a long association as a patron with INQUEST prior to Mikey’s death, commented on the sad irony of how he had gone from supporting to being supported by the charity.

Family struggles

As is the case in many custody deaths, the police and certain sections of the press made attempts to damage public perception of Mikey. Within days of his passing a report was leaked that police had drove at him because they believed he had a gun. This immediately presented Mikey as a gun-toting thug from an area of Birmingham known for gun crime during the period. Although we forced a retraction of this report, the seed had already been planted in the minds of the public.

Over the last 15 years my family has experienced delays, stonewalling, and misrepresentations. In January 2005 The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) revealed that officers would not face manslaughter charges. Instead, eight officers were to be prosecuted for misconduct and two for dangerous driving and assault.

Between June and August of 2006 10 Police officers were cleared on all charges including misconduct in public office and dangerous driving at Leicester Crown Court. No charges were ever brought in relation to Mikey’s death itself. In April 2007 the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) also announced its decision not to discipline officers.

It was not until March 2009 (6 years after Mikey’s death) that a public inquest would commence. This was further delayed following our complaint that the Coroner and Northamptonshire police had withheld and failed to disclose significant amounts of documents to us.

At the eventual conclusion in December 2009 the inquest returned a damning narrative verdict  that the way that Mikey was restrained resulted in his death from positional asphyxia. This refers to severe restrictions on a person’s ability to breathe.

On hearing this conclusion, Mikey’s sister Sieta Lambrias said: “At long last the truth has come out, we have worked for six years to reach this point. The jury found that the position the police put Mikey in killed him. A chilling feature of this Inquest was that officer after officer told the Court that they would do the same thing again. Most expressed no regret for Mikey’s death. We are alarmed about this, and think the community should be too.”

In 2013 the Mikey Powell Campaign marked a decade of struggle, bringing together families and activists from across the country in an event held at the African & Caribbean Resource Centre in Birmingham. West Midlands Police acknowledged the anniversary by issuing a formal letter of apology to Mikey’s mother, Clarissa Powell. In response, my brother Benjamin Zephaniah said: “An apology for the death of my cousin ten years after the event is cold comfort. We have been asking questions for years, protesting, writing letters, poems and statements. But most of all we have been collectively grieving for ten years. Although we accept this apology, we are intelligent enough to know that it is just an apology, and it is not justice.”

Mikey’s legacy

I was determined that Mikey’s death would not be in vain, and on my return to Birmingham I worked with various parties to ensure that this was the case. Despite criticism from some fellow campaigners, I was also determined to work closely with the police and other statutory agencies in order to bring about meaningful changes in practice and policy, achieved through joint lobbying and other actions. I feel very strongly that these achievements (no matter how small) should be acknowledged and celebrated by all sectors, including the campaigning community.

Most significant in this respect has been my work with West Midlands Police in terms of finding more appropriate ways of dealing with vulnerable people with mental ill health and other needs that come into contact with the police or end up in detention, CCTV coverage in police stations, and better training of police and custody officers. This approach has seen a massive decrease of controversial police custody deaths across the West Midlands over the last 7+ years.

Affectionately dubbed ‘the trojan horse strategy’ I have successfully kept Mikey’s case and mental health reform at the forefront of community development with agencies such as Birmingham City Council, MIND, The New Testament Church of God, The Drum Arts Centre, Coventry and Birmingham Universities, Birmingham & Solihull Mental Health Trust and many others.

Here are a few initiatives developed as a direct response to Mikey’s death:

2006 - 4WardEver UK launched: Its purpose is to provide a one-stop-resource for case profiles, news and events, useful resources, statistics, appeals and more; in relation to deaths and abuses whilst in custody; including the death penalty, other injustices and human rights abuses in the UK and internationally.

2006 - 2018 - Collaborative events: We have worked with many individuals, organisations and artists to host numerous events over the years. These include vigils, music and film screening events.

2013 - 14 - Red Alert HELP launched: With support from The Edge Fund we developed an interactive online advice portal available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to help visitors find the information, services or support that they need.

2014 - The 4WardEver Film Club:  In collaboration with The Drum Arts Centre Birmingham. We launched the monthly film club in November 2014, bringing powerful independent films to Birmingham, and hosting debates with key figures campaigning for change, raising awareness and calling people to action.

2015 - Mental Health Street Triage launched: We have worked with West Midlands Police, Birmingham & Solihull Mental Health Trust and West Midlands Ambulance Service which collaborated to ensure better treatment of people with poor mental health.

2015 - National Mikey Powell Memorial Family Fund appeal launched: The purpose of the fund is to ensure that families or their campaign groups across the UK get access to small grants to provide practical domestic assistance, to further the work of their campaigns, or assist them to engage in other local, regional or national events and initiatives. We have yet to hit our optimum operational target.

2015 - Mentoring & Advocacy Support Hub: MASH, previously known as the Peer Support Programme, was initially developed as part of the MIND & Time to Change 300 Voices Project to support young African and Caribbean men with mental health problems in Birmingham to build resilience, and aid recovery. I now run this programme independently of MIND.

I remain committed to supporting families affected by deaths and abuses in state custody by any means necessary. “Forward ever, backward never”

Brothers, Dave Springer, Tippa Naphtali and Benjamin Zephaniah