Leading Article: Give deportees their dignity

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The Independent Online
THE CENTRAL question raised by the death of Joy Gardner is: did police officers employ unusual and excessive force in her arrest and so put her life unnecessarily at risk? This issue lies at the heart of the anger aroused by the death of a Jamaican woman whose sole crime was that she stayed longer in Britain than permitted. Her five-year-old son has lost a mother in what may have been a preventable tragedy.

There is unlikely to be an answer to the question sufficient to satisfy all public concern. Apart from the five-year-old and Mrs Gardner, the only people present at the incident were five police officers and an immigration official. The lack of an independent adult witness means, unfortunately, that doubt may always lurk among those wary of the police that the full story of her arrest will be told.

Such scepticism is particularly dangerous in immigration cases, which almost inevitably touch on the sensitive issue of race relations. Many members of ethnic minorities distrust the police, having experienced harassment at their hands. In the rare instances of people dying in police custody, the deceased has frequently been black. So people in minority communities find it all too plausible that the police may act in a violent and abusive manner. Uncertainty about such incidents can easily boil over and trigger expression of more generalised grievance against the authorities.

In this case, those concerned about Mrs Gardner's death have grounds for suspicion. The police are understood to have used a body belt to restrain her and to have taped her mouth - actions that are not usually part of police practice. If hardened criminals can be detained using normal procedures, why are such methods used when arresting individuals who are to be deported? Mrs Gardner was not the only deportee to have been restrained in this way. Is there one system for arresting British citizens and another, more brutal, one for people deemed alien?

These are questions that must be answered by the review announced by Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He has moved with impressive speed to disband temporarily Scotland Yard's specialist deportations unit and to suspend three of its officers involved in Mrs Gardner's arrest. Bernie Grant, the Labour MP for Tottenham, has also played an important role in representing the anger of local people and in ensuring that it is expressed in a peaceful manner. His involvement has exemplified the importance of drawing Members of Parliament from ethnic minorities. The responsible actions of Mr Condon and Mr Grant may have prevented civil disturbances.

However, more must be done to minimise the chance of such an incident occurring again. First, there should be no special squads for arresting illegal immigrants: the officers used to detain suspected criminals should be quite sufficient to arrest someone who has stayed too long in the country. Second, special equipment such as body belts and tape should be abandoned.

Finally, every arrest of a deportee should be observed by an independent witness, such as a magistrate, who could monitor police conduct and be available as a witness of proven integrity and impartiality. Any sudden expulsion after the legal process is exhausted will always be traumatic and is likely to provide a trigger-point when relations with the police are already strained. It is important that the dignity and wellbeing of deportees is respected.