12 November 2021

Before Assistant Coroner Jonathan Leach
Harrogate Coroner’s Court
8-11 November 2021

Steven O'Neill was 28 years old when he drowned in the River Ouse in York following police contact on 20 April 2019. An inquest has concluded finding his death was misadventure (an accidental death).

Steven’s family describe him as a fantastic role model for his younger sisters and ‘a rock’ to the family. The best son, brother, and uncle anyone could ask for.

At the time of his death, Steven had been visiting York on a night out with his brother. The brothers were new to the city. Steven had been having a drink outside of a bar when two ununiformed officers from North Yorkshire police approached him.

The officers had been deployed to investigate a suspicion that Steven had been supplying drugs, after he was seen on CCTV standing in a group with four other men. Upon their approach, the police officers did not identify themselves.

Spooked, Steven began to run from the officers. He ran alongside the River Ouse and subsequently entered the water. Despite there being numerous officers at the scene, not one attempt was made to utilise the life buoys positioned on the riverbank or use their own resources to help Steven.

Steven’s family recognise that he could not swim. He disappeared under the water. After two hours, the police took Steven’s body out of the water and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

The family made submissions that the inquest should consider critical issues involving the actions of the police. Specifically whether the police pursuit, the actions and omissions of the officers at the river bank, and the training of police contributed to his death. However, the coroner chose not to leave these issues to the jury.

The jury ultimately returned a short factual narrative stating, “‘On 20 April 2019, Steven O’Neill drowned whilst trying to swim across the River Ouse.”

Steven’s death came just seven days after another man died in the nearby River Foss, a tributary of the River Ouse, in April 2019. A few months later, in October 2019, the body of another man was recovered in the River Ouse.

The family have continued concerns about the safety of the river and responses of police to people at risk of drowning. The coroner is seeking further evidence from the police and is considering writing a prevention of future deaths report.

Steven’s mother, Sharon Scott, said: “As a family we are hugely disappointed by this conclusion. As an Article 2 inquest, we expected the coroner to hold an unbiased, open and transparent investigation into what happened and why. We were appalled by the conduct of this coroner and the contempt shown to us. As the bereaved family, we were left feeling like an inconvenience.

We truly believe that Steven’s death could have been prevented. He was treated as a suspect and not a victim. As soon as he entered the water, he should have been treated as vulnerable. No efforts were made by emergency services to try and save or protect him. It was shocking that the coroner refused to consider the actions of the police, who we feel acted without humanity.

We hope that going forward the police will reflect on their shortcomings and look to improve the way they respond in these emergencies. We hope no other family has to experience the hell we’ve been through. Steven's death leaves a huge hole in our family that will never be filled.”   

Amber Anders of Southerns Solicitors, who represent the family, said: “‘It is important to remember that bereaved families should remain at the heart of an inquest. In this instance, the family believe that their thoughts and opinions were not duly considered in the way in which the inquest was undertaken by the Coroner and also felt disconnected from the said Coroner.

It is felt that wider potential issues should have been left to the jury to consider and that, ultimately, increased scrutiny of police conduct and lack of training should have been undertaken. The family, despite their grief, wish to ensure that recognition, prevention and the implementation of the correct training be a focal point going forwards to ensure additional safeguarding from further tragedies.”

Jodie Anderson, Senior Caseworker at INQUEST, said: “It is our view that the conclusions of this inquest do not fully reflect the critical evidence on the actions and inactions of police involved.

We believe Steven’s death was avoidable and could possibly have been prevented if officers intervened and attempted to assist his exit from the water. For example, through the use of rescue equipment, such as a throw line.

The risk of people entering the water and their lives being endangered during police pursuit remains. We hope the coroner will exercise his powers by issuing a Prevention of Future Deaths report to address some of the key concerns."


For further information, interview requests and to note your interest, please contact Lucy McKay on 020 7263 1111 or [email protected]

The family is represented by INQUEST Lawyers Group member Amber Anders of Southerns Solicitors and Kate Bisset of Park Square Barrister Chambers. The family are supported by INQUEST Caseworker, Jodie Anderson. 

Other Interested persons represented are the North Yorkshire Police.

See media reports on other recent deaths in York rivers.