The family of Dalian Atkinson have reacted with “disappointment” after a police officer found guilty of having unlawfully batoned the ex-Aston Villa striker kept her job following a disciplinary hearing.
An independent tribunal in Telford, Shropshire, found on Friday that Mary Ellen Bettley-Smith, a West Mercia Police officer, acted wrongly when she struck Dalian Atkinson three times with her police-issue baton during an incident in the early hours of August 15 2016, after which the ex-sportsman died.
The panel concluded her actions were “unnecessary, disproportionate and unreasonable… and therefore unlawful.”
The panel could then have sacked Bettley-Smith, a University of Hull graduate originally from Staffordshire, without notice but instead handed her a final written warning.
The move came after the barrister who presented the case against her, Dijen Basu KC, said West Mercia’s Police’s Deputy Chief Constable Alex Murray had instructed that the panel be asked to consider the lesser sanction, as well as dismissal without notice.
Elaine Atkinson, Mr Atkinson’s older sister who attended with other relatives, reacted to the decision, saying “I suppose they (the police) look out for their own, it seems”, describing her family as “shattered” by more than six years of trials and hearings.
Mr Atkinson died after being kicked at least twice in the head by Ms Bettley-Smith’s more experienced colleague, Pc Benjamin Monk, outside the victim’s father’s home in Telford, Shropshire, six-and-a-half years ago.
After the 48-year-old was Tasered to the ground and kicked in the head by Monk, probationary officer Bettley-Smith used her baton on him, claiming she “perceived” he was trying to get up, although several civilian witnesses recalled the 48-year-old “was not moving” and “was not resistant”.
Monk was jailed for eight years in 2021 after his conviction for manslaughter at Birmingham Crown Court.
Ms Bettley-Smith – known as Ellie – was cleared of assaulting Mr Atkinson after a trial, but the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) found there was a gross misconduct disciplinary case to answer for her use of force.
The disciplinary panel, sitting in Telford on Friday, previously heard how Bettley-Smith and Monk responded to a 999 call, arriving to find Mr Atkinson outside his father’s address, appearing “in the grip of a psychotic episode”.
On Friday, Karimullah Khan, independent chairman, delivered the panel’s finding that Bettley-Smith breached force professional standards by using excessive force on Mr Atkinson.
“In the circumstances, she used unlawful force amounting in effect to an assault against Dalian Atkinson, relating to three of her six baton strikes,” he said.
The panel previously heard how Mr Atkinson was heard to repeatedly refer to himself as the “Messiah” before he was felled by the third Taser, also variously telling officers “do you know what I am capable of” and “you don’t know who the f*** I am, you can shoot 10,000 volts through my body, you won’t get me – you won’t stop me”.
As Mr Atkinson “timbered” to the ground, after being Tasered at 1.41am, the panel said Bettley-Smith, now 33, saw Mr Atkinson “wriggling” and “growling” on the floor, causing her to first baton him with three strikes to his legs and buttocks.
“She used three baton strikes, which the panel find was necessary, proportionate and reasonable in the circumstances,” said Mr Khan
However, the panel said Monk’s “intervening kick” to Mr Atkinson’s head, and the ex-sportsman’s lack of reaction meant Bettley-Smith should have “reassessed the situation… and take account of the change in circumstances”, meaning three more baton strikes she delivered were unlawful.
But deciding against sacking Bettley-Smith, Mr Khan said: “It constituted three baton strikes and needs to be properly viewed as an isolated and brief lapse of judgment in what was clearly a fast-moving incident, where, in a matter of seconds, she made a serious error of judgment resulting in her use of force.”
Mr Khan said Bettley-Smith’s “conscientious performance” during two trials and the disciplinary hearing “supports the assessment that the public should be reassured that if retained in the service, there will be no repeat of this behaviour”.
However the panel also said it was “with regret the police officer has demonstrated no insight regarding her own conduct when it would only have been natural to have reflected on what happened that night”.
Mr Khan added: “The panel has carefully taken account of all relevant factors… and finds the sanction of a final written warning to be an appropriate outcome”.
Reacting afterwards, Mr Atkinson’s older sister said: “I am disappointed really with the outcome because I did feel that it was serious enough (for her to be sacked).
“That she was found guilty of gross misconduct, and they (the panel) appreciated that – I though that was good.
“His life wasn’t as important and what we have gone through the past six years and the fact they’re talking about her (Bettley-Smith) being on the rack.
“At the end of the day, Dalian’s gone and it’s down to those officers.”
Asked what the last six-and-a-half years had been like for the family, Ms Atkinson: “Our family has been shattered by it, absolutely shattered.
“I’m the eldest, he’s the youngest, it shouldn’t be like that – it shouldn’t have happened.”
Asked if she felt Bettley-Smith should still be in the job, she replied: “I, personally, don’t think so.
“I suppose they look out for their own, it seems.
“I’m not saying all police are bad – that’s not the case at all.”
After the hearing, Derrick Campbell, IOPC regional director, said: “We conducted a thorough investigation, it’s taken its time – we are satisfied Pc Monk has been appropriately sanctioned.
“As the panel has concluded, as regards Pc Bettley-Smith, they have settled on a final written warning.”
“We are satisfied with that,” he added.
“The vast majority of police officers do a very difficult job, in often very difficult circumstances, and are given huge powers to protect us and we expect them, when they use those powers, to use them in a reasonable and proportionate way.”
Mr Murray, of West Mercia Police, said: “We’re truly sorry about what happened in this incident.
“The role of police officers is to look after people, protect people and on that evening it didn’t happen.
“The tragic death of Dalian Atkinson was awful, one of those officers involved was subject to trial, found guilty, and is now in prison.
“Today, in a hearing, they’ve looked at all the circumstances – the evening, the time, the volatility of the situation, her experience, and they felt it was right to give a final written warning.”
Asked if the police looked after their own, given the force had asked for a written warning sanction, he replied: “When you look at the circumstances of this case, put yourself in the position of the officer – a young probationer, more on the periphery of the situation, than the officer who is now in jail.
“All those considerations need to be taken into account.
“The panel have looked at all the evidence, and they’ve made the decision.”