A PANORAMA investigation has raised concerns about a police watchdog’s probe into the death of Habib Ullah - who suffered a cardiac arrest during a ‘stop-and-search’ in High Wycombe in 2008.

The dad-of-three died after being restrained by police officers who were trying to force a package of drugs out of his mouth in Sharrow Vale.

An initial investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission cleared the police of wrong-doing.

But Monday night’s BBC programme raised concerns over this inquiry, highlighting an email sent by Deborah Glass, the deputy chair of the IPCC, which appeared to warn against treating the police as possible suspects.

Though the watchdog had powers to seek to interview the officers under misconduct or criminal caution, Ms Glass was reported to have told the lead investigator: “They (the police) have been very co-operative to date on the basis that the IPCC has treated them as witnesses.”

She wrote that if they felt they were “being treated as suspects in a suspicious death... this could cause the officers to withdraw co-operation... with the real possibility that in future incidents, officers will be much more reluctant to co-operate with our investigators”.

She advised “handling this very carefully if you don’t want the barriers to go up”.

In March 2010, the IPCC found no case to answer for misconduct against the officers.

But then in December that year an inquest into Mr Ullah’s death was abandoned, after the coroner was told a solicitor had advised police officers to alter parts of their statements the day after the incident.

Zia Ullah, the cousin of Habib, said: “We actually thought that the IPCC had gone in and interviewed each of the officers separately...

“Why should we have confidence in them? What they’ve done is waste four years of our lives and they continue to waste our lives."

The new evidence heard at the inquest led the IPCC to open a criminal investigation into the case, with five officers being interviewed under criminal caution. This investigation is still ongoing.

The Panorama show also surveyed 20 families whose relatives had died in a police restraint-related death that had been investigated by the IPCC since its inception in 2004.

Fifteen of the 20 families identified by the BBC responded and of those, 14 said they were “not really or not at all” confident that the IPCC was independent and impartial.

Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which is conducting the inquiry into the IPCC, told the show: “At the very least you would expect some people to be satisfied, having gone through a very lengthy process.

“At the moment [the IPCC] does not appear to be fulfilling the obligations and responsibilities that Parliament place on it.”

THE IPCC said: "We are currently carrying out a thorough and robust criminal investigation in the case of Habib Ullah, after facts emerged at inquest under oath which had not previously been admitted to us.”

The watchdog said it has repeatedly asked for powers to force officers to attend interviews, thereby avoiding the need to make decisions about conduct or criminality at too early a stage, which can inhibit officers' cooperation.

A spokesman added: “In the Habib Ullah case, officers were served with notices in August, only a month after Mr Ullah's death, and detailed statements had already been taken.

“In a previous case, Deborah Glass, IPCC deputy chair, had found that serving notices on officers too early had resulted in a wall of silence that had prevented the possibility of assembling evidence to support prosecution or misconduct.

“The email was sent to the Commissioner responsible for the case and contained neither instructions nor any direction. It provided background information about what had happened in some previous cases involving serving of notices, both where they were and were not served.”

The spokesman said most of the cases surveyed by Panorama related to investigations that took place at least four years ago, while deaths following restraint often prove the most difficult and controversial.

He added: “These cases are not representative of our work in general but we take criticisms very seriously. We have set up a review of our work in investigating deaths as a whole, which will examine in detail the views of bereaved families and community groups.”

WYCOMBE police chief Gilbert Houalla said he recently lobbied MPs to try and get answers to the questions being raised by the Ullah family.

He told the Bucks Free Press: “I felt that it’s been going on for too long and natural justice deems it that you can’t go on for four years asking the questions and not getting the answer.”

Wycombe MP Steve Baker said he has since written to Anthony Stansfeld, the new Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley, with a briefing paper about the Ullah case and asked him to make it a priority.

And he said of the Panorama programme: “I think it was a good show and the IPCC certainly has got to take into account the criticisms that were levelled. It must be credible and have the right powers, and they are going to have to come up with the right answer.

“Of course they must be able to compel police witnesses and they should be going through the same processes as a suspect would go through in police custody.”