So many deaths, so few prosecutions

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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee