The life and death of Smiley Culture – who died ten years ago this month during a police raid – and what happened next

 31st March 2021

Ten years ago this month the singer David Emmanuel – known as Smiley Culture – died under arrest during a police raid.

The cause of death was a knife wound – which the police said was self-inflcited.

Ten years ago I blogged about this extraordinary death – and so this post is a follow-on so as to see what happened (and did not happen) next.

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Smiley Culture was part of the soundtrack of those of us brought up in the 1980s.

Have a click and listen and watch.

The sneering, aggressive vocal characterisation of the officer – ‘Shut your bloody mouth. We ask. You answer’ – felt spot on for those in communities which dealt with the police.

Police Officer especially caught a certain mood about the police’s attitude.

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Here is the singer posing outside a south London police station on the cover of the single:

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The news of the circumstances of the death of Smiley Culture seemed – literally – incredible.

That someone could stab themselves fatally in the chest in the presence of police officers seemed surreal – like something akin to those lines in the Blackadder episode Dish and Dishonesty.

But this – horrifically – was real, not a fiction.

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The name of Smiley Culture is now recalled as one of a long list of name of black people who have died in police custody or in similar situations.

So what happened with his case?

Putting events together now, the main consequence of the death was a coroner’s inquest in June-July 2013.

After a two-week hearing, the jury returned a majority verdict that the cause of death was indeed suicide.

(A majority verdict, of course, means that the jury could not come to an unanimous verdict, which in turn means that at least one juror had doubt that it was a suicide.)

According to a BBC report, the inquest heard medical evidence that the fatal wound could have been self-inflicted, if the right spot was chosen:

‘Dr Nathaniel Cary, who carried out a second post-mortem examination on Mr Emmanuel’s body, said told the inquest it was possible the fatal stab wound was, as described, a self-inflicted injury.

‘But he said that on pathological grounds alone there was nothing to determine that this was the case, although it was fair to say the site chosen may be used in self-infliction.’

The majority of the jurors accepted this as the explanation.

The jury’s verdict is here – on a page written about the case by the barrister for the family, Leslie Thomas QC.

As counter-intuitive as this verdict may seem, it must be remembered that those jurors sat through two weeks of evidence – which was cross-examined on behalf of the deceased’s family.

But another person who sat through that hearing – the daughter of Smiley Culture – was not satisfied.

She was quoted as saying:

 ‘After listening to over two weeks of evidence and having had the opportunity to test the accounts of the officers, I feel no closer to the truth than I did before.

‘I have approached this inquest with an open mind hoping to hear for myself what happened on the day of my dad’s death.

‘Despite the jury’s verdict, the inconsistencies in the evidence have only served to raise serious concerns on my part about what really happened on the morning of March 15 2011.’

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That a person in a room drinking tea with a police officer should suddenly get up, produce a large kitchen knife and plunge it in his own chest so as to kill themselves is, even accepting the jury’s verdict, an extreme fact situation.

Even if it were suicide, there are questions to be asked about how it happened, and answers to be given in the public interest.

As Thomas set out:

‘Despite the suicide verdict, the jury did find that the way in which Mr Emmanuel was supervised following his arrest materially contributed to his death. In particular, the fact that a single officer was left to supervise Mr Emmanuel while also completing paperwork was felt to be inappropriate.

‘The inquest has also highlighted serious failings in the Independent Police Complaints Commission’s investigation, including a failure to attend the scene until some four hours after the event, a failure to secure all relevant evidence, and a failure to critically analyse opinions expressed by the expert witnesses.

‘Following the verdict, the Coroner, Mr Richard Travers, said that he would write to the Metropolitan Police Service, highlighting failures that contributed towards the death, making recommendations for changes aimed at preventing similar tragedies in future.’

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The (then) Independent Police Complaints Commission issued the following press release after the inquest verdict (emphasis added):

‘Following today’s conclusion of the inquest into the death of David Emmanuel, also known as Smiley Culture, IPCC Commissioner Mike Franklin said:

‘David Emmanuel’s death caused huge shock, anger and disbelief in the community and I am aware that many people, most importantly Mr Emmanuel’s family, have waited over two years for the evidence to be heard at an inquest.

The ongoing dynamic assessments made by officers on the 15 March 2011 were left wanting. Four experienced officers felt it appropriate to detain a suspect in the kitchen, potentially the most dangerous room in the house and afforded him a level of freedom not normally associated with an operation of this kind.

‘The IPCC has made a series of recommendations to the Metropolitan Police following this investigation presenting them with areas that should be reviewed and changed in light of the findings. These include recommendations on dynamic risk assessments, the sharing of information and use of officer personal safety equipment.

‘The IPCC made two national recommendations following this investigation. The first is that officers should always detain people in the safest part of the house. Therefore kitchens must generally be avoided at all times. The second national recommendation focused on officer safety equipment and that all officers and staff attending search operations should carry with them the appropriate personal safety equipment.

While the IPCC highlighted these areas of learning for the MPS, the officers’ actions did not meet the threshold for misconduct under the Police (conduct) Regulations 2008 and no disciplinary action has been recommended.

‘I hope that this inquest has provided Mr Emmanuel’s family with some of the answers they and the community have so patiently waited for. This has been a long process for all the parties involved and I would like to thank them for their patience.

‘Notes to editors

‘Mr Emmanuel died on 15 March 2011 of a single stab wound through the heart at his home on Hillbury Road in Warlingham, Surrey. Four officers from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) were at the house at the time, carrying out a search of the property.

‘After careful consideration and in consultation with lawyers from both the IPCC and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Commissioner Mike Franklin, took the decision not to formally refer the case to the CPS as the investigation found no evidence that a criminal offence may have been committed.

‘Consideration was also given as to whether the actions of individual officers met the threshold for misconduct under the Police (conduct) Regulations 2008. The investigation found there were no individual failings which, for the purposes of the Regulations, amounted to misconduct.’

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So the conduct of the police was ‘found wanting’, somebody died under arrest, but this was an opportunity for ‘learning’ rather than any formal proceedings.

The coroner, in turn, also made recommendations.

Thanks to a tweeter, we have what appears to have a formal record of the recommendations:

Here it is, line 208 in a table in the chief coroner’s report:

This accords with the Surrey address and the date, and so presumably is indeed the recommendations made by the coroner.

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Smiley Culture was just one of hundreds of people who have died in police custody or during contact with the police.

No doubt in each of those situations there are special facts – but it is marked that the police rarely face any proceedings, let alone criminal charges for any of these deaths.

And it may well be that the close scrutiny of each case could dispel any suspicion that something wrong happened every time.

But the accumulation of deaths as set against the absence of successful prosecutions seems to be a mismatch.

Here is the FullFact analysis of the lack of prosecutions.

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Given the facts of the death of Smiley Culture, as determined by a majority of a jury, it may contested that his death is not as glaring example of this apparent trend of injustices as many others.

But like one or two of the others that have died while in the custody (or ‘care’) of the police, he happened to be more famous than the rest, and so his is one of the names that will be cited.

And even the IPCC found the conduct of the police at the time of his death to be ‘wanting’ – with both the IPCC and the coroner separately making recommendations about how such searches are conducted in future.

So even if one accepts the coroner’s inquest – and again the jury heard the relevant evidence cross-examined and a majority of those jurors were convinced it was suicide – the death followed carelessness by the police.

I am still seeking to find out if those recommendations were formally accepted by the police and the home office – though I have been told by police sources that the training for such searches now includes the need for risk assessments that would cover what happened in the death of Smiley Culture.

I will post here again on this subject when I have further information about what happened with the recommendations of the coroner and the IPCC.

It is important to follow these things through, even ten years later – especially as black people continue to die in police custody, and there are never any formal proceedings.

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12 thoughts on “The life and death of Smiley Culture – who died ten years ago this month during a police raid – and what happened next”

  1. Your last line is right as to the importance of following things up. However, I think it goes too far re no formal proceedings. It is right that prosecutions (let alone convictions) are extremely rare. However, there will often be police conduct proceedings- which will scrutinise conduct, will often lead to sanctions and make further recommendations. I appreciate none were brought re Smiley Culture; but the overall picture is not quite as barren as would otherwise appear. I am afraid I don’t have full fact style data on this- it would be informative. Many thanks, as ever, for your excellent analysis

  2. Thank you for this typically measured and balanced view of a set of circumstances that I imagine cannot but fail to leave most people feeling uneasy at the very least.

    I take on board everything you say about the inquest jury having heard the evidence, and about ‘fame’ and its potential to colour perceptions, but am left with an awful sense of now unanswerable doubts.

    Rather as with the plummeting rape and sexual assault conviction rates, it is hard to escape a more than nagging sense that justice has not been seen to have been done (in my perhaps jaundiced eyes, at least).

    And is the accumulation of such doubts that can corrode confidence over time.

  3. It seems odd to me that an inquest can conclude a death as suicide in the absence of evidence that the balance of the victim’s mind had been upset for some time prior to the act. It would seem extraordinary that he should decide to end his life on the very day of a police raid (for which, one assumes, he had no prior warning), so the simple fact of the raid must have been a factor in his death. I know very little about him, other than his name, but on the face of it, he had a lot to live for. The reason for the raid is not clear, either. Perhaps if he were implicated in some serious criminality, it might be more probable, but that claim seems not to be made. It would also be instructive to know how many people commited suicide in such a manner, or, indeed, how common deliberate self-inflicted stabbings are.

    1. Just to join up the dots for you, what happened was the court accepted the evidence of an uncorroborated police witness, who made the common claim that the prisoner’s injuries were self-inflicted. As Robert Campbell makes clear, the leading judge of the day was staunch in his support for that approach.

      https://www.inquest.org.uk/deaths-in-police-custody
      Some safeguards have been brought in, and deaths in custody have fallen to about a third where they were 30 years ago. Deaths in pursuit became a big issue about 20 years ago, but has also been brought back.

  4. Today is the anniversary of the 1976 Sallins train robbery in Ireland. At a subsequent trial, three accused presented with extensive bruising and injuries they claimed were inflicted by the Irish police. They had signed confessions. Though medical evidence of beatings was presented to the court, this was rejected, and the court found the injuries were self-inflicted or inflicted by co-defendants. More here: https://stairnaheireann.net/2021/03/31/otd-in-1976-the-sallins-train-robbery-4/.

    During a 1980 civil case against the police by the “Birmingham Six” who alleged police brutality, Lord Denning said that if the men won their appeal it would mean “that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous… That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further’”

    1. It probably wasn’t the Sallins case or it might have ended differently, but I have recollection of a judge being dismissive of “the uncorroborated evidence of six gardai”.

      1. I don’t recall that judicial comment, but it can’t have been the original Sallins trial.

        I have the distinct feeling, though I can’t find the evidence at present, that the scales fell from the judicial eyes from about 1985 onwards.

  5. Wholeheartedly agree that recommendations from reports and investigations should be followed, relentlessly, until properly resolved. I doubt they are very often. Thanks for doing so in this case.

  6. My own brother died after falling out of a police van in 1991.

    My recollection from the inquest held later that year is that the coroner effectively told the jury that the options open to them were accidental death or suicide.

    As family, we felt sure there were issues of police negligence or lack of care. However, the officers asserted their right not to answer questions, and so this was not something really covered by the inquest.

    So yes, the jury in this case heard evidence, but they also heard instruction, and I am in no doubt personally that the conduct of the inquest and whether or not all involved answer questions freely can have a considerable impact on the verdict that the jury is able to reach

  7. I think black deaths in police custody needs more context then is generally given.

    The UK records a higher number of deaths in custody then similiar countries (e.g France where it’s only at premises not after) as we are very comprehensive and perhaps over record. A person who dies within 2 days after contact with police and had a underlying issue e.g drug/alcohol addiction and dies related to that gets included. This ensures all are captured but does mean you get higher numbers.

    Disparity in police deaths by race. Black people in custody are less likely to die in or following contact than white people as a proportion of total in custody. Black people are however more likely to find themselves in police custody. There are nuances to that figure and taking demographics to why black people are over represented in stop and search. Our countrywide demographics are out of date we’ve not had a census published for awhile. OAPs are unlikely to come into contact with police, they’re also overwhelmingly white in the country. The demographics of the age group likely to be arrested and locality should be the barometer. Then the MET is such a outlier in policing as its responsible for by far the majority of policing action. MET should be looked at alone with the demographics of London.

    When I read reports like this and others usually long timeframes are used which inflate numbers. 18 people died

    “Of the 18 deaths in or following police custody, 14 people were White, three were Black and the ethnicity of one person was unknown at the time of publication.
    11 of the 18 people were identified as having ‘mental health concerns’ and 14 were known to have a link to alcohol/or drugs. Two people were detained under the Mental Health Act.
    Eight of the 18 people who died in or following police custody had force used against them either by officers or members of the public before their deaths. Of the people who were physically restrained, six were White and two were Black. ”

    The numbers are incredibly small. And mental health issues are more prevalent than other factors.

    Part of the problem is police cant ‘not pick up the phone’ council, care organisations etc all clock off and police are left to deal with situations they shouldn’t be.

    They are law enforcement not mental healthcare professionals, while training goes someway they will never be as good as trained healthcare professionals who aren’t on the clock when police must deal with it.

    It’s a very difficult situation and is it a wonder you do not get misconduct proceedings when people are following best they can, without adequate(and unlikely ever to be adequate as so variable issues) in the circumstances. And information known at the time by the officer’s at that moment.

    All of this is not to say Police never do wrong and shouldn’t be looked at. There is usually a lot more nuance and context which doesn’t get into these conversations.

  8. I am shocked by David’s article and also by some of the comments, so thank you all for making me more aware that our cuddly bobbies (I am old enough to remember George Dixon!) are often not what they seemed to be, sadly – and the same goes for the judicial system. Black lives matter, and so do the lives of anyone who falls into police hands, even if they themselves are not angels

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