The Case of Dalian Atkinson
By Dr Eleanor Peters
Last week PC Benjamin Monk was cleared of the murder of former Aston Villa striker Dalian Atkinson, but a jury unanimously found him guilty of manslaughter and he was sentenced to 8 years in prison. After a jury previously failed to reach a verdict, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) says it will re-try Monk’s fellow PC on the scene, Mary Ellen Bettley-Smith, for assault occasioning actual bodily harm. She remains suspended subject to a gross misconduct investigation.
According to the pathologist, Atkinson went into cardiac arrest following being excessively tasered, and was subsequently restrained and kicked in an incident outside his father’s house in Telford on 15th August 2016.
In court, a pathologist stated that although underlying health conditions meant that Atkinson was at higher risk owing to heart and kidney problems, he would not have died if not for the taser blasts and kicks to the head from PC Benjamin Monk. It was also stated that poor management following unconsciousness, such as being handcuffed, contributed to death. Witnesses say that when Atkinson went down he was lifeless and despite this one officer ‘thought he was faking and would not remove handcuffs‘.
It emerged in court that Monk had previously breached the required standards of honesty and integrity and been found guilty of gross misconduct after failing to mention two cautions on his job application.
The police in England and Wales are legally allowed to use “reasonable force” to make an arrest, prevent a crime or to defend themselves. The European Convention of Human Rights, which the UK is a signatory to, allows “the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary”.
The Court found that being tasered for six times longer than is standard and kicked in the head at least twice constituted ‘excessive’ force.
Dalian Atkinson was suffering an acute mental health crisis and his behaviour was out of character. His brother Paul said “he was unwell and needed kindness and care rather than violence.”
At the time, the officers were in a romantic relationship with each other, and although Monk denies that he overreacted in protecting his girlfriend, it is difficult to accept that this would not have any influence on his actions.
It appears their superiors were unaware of their relationship until the investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (the body that oversees the system for handling complaint against the police). Despite being best practice to declare their relationship, it was not at the time against the rules.
Incredibly, between conviction and sentence, the judge allowed Monk to remain on bail. Usually a person convicted of a very serious crime would not be allowed home on bail while waiting for their sentence. Monk was allowed to remain on bail after his barrister argued he wished to give a ‘face to face explanation’ to his family that he would be inevitably going to prison.
The reason this case is important, is how few serving officers have faced charges when someone dies. Since 1990 there have only been 10 cases where officers were charged with manslaughter or murder. The last officer to be convicted of manslaughter was sergeant Alan Sawyer who assaulted 67-year-old Henry Foley in Southport in 1985.
Inquest state that since Dalian Atkinson’s death there have been 103 deaths following police contact. People are two times more likely to die when restraint is used; Black people are more likely to be restrained by police. People are also two times more likely to die when there are mental health issues involved.
Black people are also more than twice as likely to die in police custody than white people. The 2011 census showed that 3% of the English population were black whereas black people account for 8% of deaths in custody.
There have been too many deaths of black men following contact with the police – Sean Rigg, Olaseni Lewis, Christopher Alder, Kingsley Burrell, Sheku Bayoh – just to mention a very small number of the deaths over the years.
As Villa fans we know Dalian had his issues, but a common justification for the use of violence against black men is, as Monk did in his defence, that they are angry hulks who are out of control. The belief remains that ‘justice’ for police violence remains elusive.
For me, remembering Dalian Atkinson is not as a victim of a terrible death, but racing down the pitch, fast, strong and about to forcefully kick the ball into the net. The first time I remember seeing him was against Leeds United in a midweek August game, where his one goal was the decider.
He was a talented number 10, who proved pivotal for many years in the Villa team. I can picture him in those memorable shirts – the classic Muller and Mitre tops.
The early-mid-90s was my favourite time as a Villa fan; we were in the running for the first Premier League title (if only Atkinson didn’t get injured in the mid-season!), we qualified for Europe and had fantastic League Cup wins against Manchester United and Leeds. Atkinson was a stand out player for most of that period. For many of us our favourite memory of him is when he won the goal of the season in 1992/3 season for that goal against Wimbledon, which triggered the ‘umbrella man’ celebration.
There is rightly a lot of anger and sadness at how Dalian’s life ended, not least that it took five years to get a conviction, and many will feel that the sentence should have been longer.
Perhaps the Atkinson family statement is the most fitting sentiment to end on…
‘Our sincere hope is that now that the truth about his death is known, and justice has been done, we can start to remember him not for the manner in which he died, but for the way in which he lived.’
RIP Dalian Atkinson – 21 March 1968 – 15 August 2016