So many deaths, so few prosecutions

No police officers have yet been held responsible for the deaths of people in their care

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All through the debates about the terrorism Act last week, I felt a gnawing sense of discomfort. We were - rightly - enraged about looming human rights abuses if this Bill became law. But all this talk of "sullying" our otherwise-great civil liberties record sounded fake to me - for a simple reason. There are dozens of British people who are already being deprived not just of their liberty but of their lives in this country. Most of them are black. Yet on this subject, all these noble parliamentary speakers and placard-waving protesters seem to have nothing to say.

All through the debates about the terrorism Act last week, I felt a gnawing sense of discomfort. We were - rightly - enraged about looming human rights abuses if this Bill became law. But all this talk of "sullying" our otherwise-great civil liberties record sounded fake to me - for a simple reason. There are dozens of British people who are already being deprived not just of their liberty but of their lives in this country. Most of them are black. Yet on this subject, all these noble parliamentary speakers and placard-waving protesters seem to have nothing to say.

Since 1970, more than 1,300 people - wildly disproportionately from ethnic minorities - have died in police custody. Not a single police officer - not one - has ever been sent to prison for it. And in our mental hospitals, there have been a number of "unlawful killings" over the past decade - we don't know how many because nobody in Whitehall even bothers to collate the figures - but, again, nobody has ever been punished. This is a situation even worse than house arrest: it's killing. Why do so many people properly protest against the former and ignore the latter?

At first, it seems impossible to believe this is actually happening. How does this failure in the justice system occur? There's no problem with producing evidence. Dozens of inquest juries - confronted with the facts - have given the toughest verdict possible. Look at a few examples. Shiji Lapite was a 34-year-old black man who sustained 40 injuries to his body while being arrested and died in a dingy cell; the jury unanimously found that he had been "unlawfully killed". David "Rocky" Bennett, a mentally ill 38-year-old black man with a baby daughter, died in the Norvic Clinic in East Anglia after being pinned down face-first for nearly half an hour; a government inquiry found he had been the victim of "institutional racism" in the NHS.

How can these violations of basic civil liberties - beyond even the provisions of the terrorism Act - be committed with impunity? The problem isn't with proving that dozens of men are being killed. It is in getting the rest of the justice system to follow this up and actually punish the perpetrators.

Ken Fero is the director of the award-winning documentary Injustice which first forced these crimes into the public debate. He explains: "The biggest problem is that the Crown Prosecution Service has almost never pressed charges against police officers for manslaughter or murder, even when an inquest jury returns a verdict of unlawful killing.

"Forty years ago, if you even stood up in court and said a policeman was lying, you would be held in contempt. Now the CPS seems to be incapable of acknowledging that sometimes police officers kill. The result is that the police think, whatever they do, they're not going to be punished," he said.

The government has responded to the campaigns against deaths in police custody (figure for the past 12 months: 100 and rising) by tinkering with some of the most outrageous aspects of the system.

The discredited Police Complaints Commission has been replaced with an independent body with some civilian oversight. The Attorney General has reviewed the actions of the CPS and urged greater action. But - a year into the new system - no police officers have yet been held responsible for the deaths of people in their care. As Fero notes: "After seven years of working with victims' families, I've learnt that you can have all the reforms and race-awareness training you like. But ultimately, in my opinion, the only thing that will stop a police officer raising a baton and killing somebody is the fear they will go to jail." So where are the convictions?

Some of the most extreme abuses of civil liberties - even to the point of manslaughter - are occurring in the psychiatric system, but this has been given even less government attention. Again, black people bear the brunt of brittle protections of our liberty. Black people today are more than five times more likely to be detained in high-security units than white people, six times more likely to be sectioned, and many times more likely (the studies differ about how much) to be over-medicated. So last week - while we were arguing about the impending house arrest of terror suspects - black people were already being sectioned and drugged by the state out of all proportion to their actual behaviour.

After Rocky Bennett's death, his sister - a psychiatric nurse - launched a campaign to prevent a repetition of the horrors imposed on her brother and hundreds of other black men. After being racially abused as a "nigger" by another patient, Rocky became agitated. When the nurses decided to move him rather than the person insulting him, he became more angry. The nurses responded by holding him face-down, and caused his suffocation.

The inquiry into his death - and the wider civil liberties issues - was billed as the "Steven Lawrence inquiry of the mental health world". It found that he had been treated in a "racist" way, and suggested a swath of changes.

But - unlike the Lawrence inquiry - it attracted little public attention, and the impetus behind reform was allowed to dribble away. The Government refused to even introduce the key recommendation: a three-minute limit on the kind of restraint that killed Rocky. Since the report was published, at least another two black men have died in psychiatric care - and nobody has been called to account.

This is not only an issue for black people. Many of the victims are white. But it does seem that a primal, racist fear of black men as unnaturally strong and dangerous causes the police and psychiatric staff to respond to them with totally disproportionate violence.

Either way, in British public life the ongoing, unpunished killing of people in the custody of the state - from police cells to psychiatric hospitals - remains a bleak taboo.

Before you shrug and look away, check out how this ongoing, legal assault on basic freedoms has affected just one family.

In 1996, Ibrahima Sey, a 29-year-old Gambian asylum-seeker, died in a police cell after being pinned down by eight officers, sprayed with tear gas and held face down on the floor for 15 minutes. The jury at his inquest found it was an "unlawful killing" but - you guessed it - no one was ever called to account. His cousin, Kebba Jobe, led a campaign for prosecution of the officers involved - but last year he became the fifth black man to die in police custody in Camden in two years. At his inquest, it was judged that he was not killed unlawfully - and his wife dismissed the process as "a whitewash".

Imagine how last week's debate about the terrorism Bill sounds to that family, or to the hundreds like them. Most people - like me - will have been appalled by the Government's assault on habeas corpus, and they know better than anyone the cost of an over-mighty state. But when they hear even the opponents of this legislation talking about "a great British record on civil liberties" being "sullied" by these new proposals, I wonder if they let out a low, derisive snort.

johann@johannhari.com

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