In October, 2020, a series of river deaths in and around the ancient city of York, and the alleged failings of North Yorkshire Police connected to them, were the subject of a searching article article elsewhere on this website. Its headline: ‘We investigated ourselves and found nothing wrong‘ is a giveaway (read here).
It will followed up in April, 2021 with another article, headlined ‘Sold down the river‘ (read in full here), that chronicled the attempts of the author of this piece to unpick what was plainly becoming one of the force’s infamous ‘cover-ups’. A carefully crafted access request under the Freedom of Information Act was stonewalled, on what is argued are almost entirely spurious grounds by NYP, and is, presently, resting with the Information Commissioner and very probably will end up before a Tribunal judge.
Both those articles feature the controversial death, on 20th April 2019, of 28 years old Steven Richard O’Neill, who drowned in the River Ouse near the city centre, following a police foot chase.
An inquest touching his death opened on Monday 8th November 2021 at The Pavilions on the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate. Assistant Coroner, Jonathan Leach, presided at the hearing, which was before a jury.
Briefly, police officers pursued Steven along the East bank of the river, shortly before he entered the water. near Skeldergate Bridge. He had swum three-quarters of the way across the river before disappearing under the water.
After two hours, the police recovered Steven’s body from the river. He was, sadly, pronounced dead at the scene.
The bereaved family were hoping that the inquest would provide them with much needed answers, both regarding the events leading up to the tragedy and the sub-optimal police investigation that followed. Steven had been on a night out in the city centre with his brother, Phil Welch, a soldier based at barracks just outside the city centre.
The family made submissions to the effect that the inquest should consider 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 ruled that those issues were not for the jury.
The inquest was expected to last five days, but concluded after just four. The jury returned a short factual narrative verdict that read ‘On 20 April 2019, Steven O’Neill drowned whilst trying to swim across the River Ouse.’
Speaking after the misadventure verdict, Sharron Scott, Steven’s mother, called for police officers to be given more river safety training to help prevent future tragedies.
She said she was particularly concerned about the police decision not to use lifelines and other flotation devices when Steven entered the water, about which evidence was heard on the third day of the inquest (see below).
“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.”
Similar concerns were also raised by INQUEST, who provided legal representation for Steven’s family at the inquest.
Senior caseworker, Jodie Anderson, 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.”
Amber Anders of Southerns Solicitors, who represent Steven’s 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 [Mr Leach]”.
During the first day’s hearing, the jury heard from Ronald Nickson, a CCTV operator, who first alerted police in the area to a potential incident that he thought might have involved a drug deal. Two officers responded to the call.
The jury saw CCTV camera footage that showed how the incident unfolded. It began on Kings Staith, near the steps at the side of Ouse Bridge where Steven and his brother could be seen chatting to three men. Two police officers arrived at the scene in high visibility jackets and approached the group, at which point Steven ran up the steps and then back down.
The footage then showed Steven running along The Staith past The Lowther pub. He then jumped down off a wall and proceeded along the riverside to Tower Gardens, underneath Skeldergate Bridge and then along the footpath next to the St George’s Field car park.
The cameras did not capture him entering the water.
PC Rebecca James, giving evidence, told the jury that her first contact with Steven was after he ran down the bridge steps. He pushed her, and her fellow officer was able to prevent her falling onto the hardstanding.
She said that after the foot chase along the riverbank, Steven was at the side of the river, downstream of Skeldergate Bridge, and shouted: “Don’t go in there.”
But he lowered himself into the water and swam until he was about three quarters of the way across the river to the far bank, when he suddenly found himself in difficulties.
“He looked a very confident swimmer,” she said. “But then he started to struggle and in a second, or two, he went under the water. I didn’t see him again.”
She said she did not attempt to enter the river, as she had been instructed during her police training not to do so. It was too dangerous.
Steven’s mother, Sharron Scott, told the jury that ‘he had a good heart’, was ‘the fabric of the whole family’ and acted as a role model.
“He was just the best son, he looked after us all. A really good man”, she said
Adding, “He touched the lives of so many people.”
The jury heard that a post mortem examination showed that he died by drowning. Pathology tests showed that he had consumed alcohol and cocaine prior to his death, which may have impaired his judgement.
There was no evidence of injuries consistent with him being assaulted.
The inquest hearing resumed on Tuesday 9th November, 2021 and the jury heard evidence from two eyewitnesses who were close to the riverside near where Steven O’Neill entered the River Ouse.
Laura Jackson described how she was walking near Skeldergate Bridge when she heard a splash from the water.
She said she saw police officers on the lower bank of the river, but was focused solely on the man who was in the water.
In a statement, Hayley Pugh said that their hobby was photography and they went to the riverside to take photographs after finishing work in Tower Street.
Police officers were seen running along the riverside from Blue Bridge towards the city centre, they heard a splash from the river and saw someone thrashing around in the water.
Her thoughts were: “I have just seen someone drown. There was nothing I could do.”
The inquests resumed on Wednesday 10th November, 2021 and the jury heard evidence from two key witnesses, Sgt Max Harris of NYP and Peter Gregory of North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. There was disagreement between the two as the actions taken, or not take, with flotation equipment and ropes:
On the one hand, Sgt Harris said his officers had devices, such as a lifeline and a life buoy, but they couldn’t be thrown to him. “In my opinion, he was too far across”.
But Mr Gregory said he would always recommend that “a lifeline should be thrown as soon as someone entered a river, even if they appeared to be swimming well”.
He added that this would then give them the option of changing their mind when in the cold water and deciding if they wanted to be rescued. “The lifeline could always be pulled back and used again if someone still needed help”.
In evidence, Sgt Harris said he was aware of the dangers presented by the River Ouse, which was cold and deep, with people sometimes suffering from cold water shock after entering. He also said that he was aware of a number of other river related incidents which had happened in York that month.
Despite his previous evidence, which amounted to having no immediate concerns for Mr O’Neill’s safety, he then said that he felt York River Rescue Boat was required.
After Steven disappeared beneath the water, the rescue boat and a Fire Service craft, aided by a police helicopter, were tasked to search for him. His body was found on the river bed and recovered around two hours later.
Steven’s family maintain that he could not swim.
Page last updated: 1700hrs on Wednesday 18th November, 2021
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