ALUN MICHAEL, the Home Office Minister, called for greater openness yesterday from police investigating deaths in custody.
He was joined by the sister of a man who died while under arrest in urging police that they could not use the possibility of criminal, civil or disciplinary proceedings as an "excuse to hide behind" when faced with bereaved families' requests for information.
Mr Michael was speaking at a conference in London organised by the Police Complaints Authority, which heard of the "growing suspicion and mistrust" between the black community and the police.
Brenda Weinberg, whose brother Brian Douglas died after his skull was fractured during an arrest in London in 1995, claimed that the existing system was slanted against the families of victims, and black people in particular.
"The persistent failure of the Crown Prosecution Service, aided by the PCA or the police force itself to bring any charges or suspension, or even dismissal, following a death in custody appears to confirm that truth and justice are entirely separate when a black person is killed," she said.
The criticisms come as the police service across England and Wales is seeking to come to terms with the problem of racism in its ranks.
The Independent revealed yesterday that two more forces had followed Greater Manchester Police in accepting that institutional racism existed in their forces. The Sussex and West Yorkshire forces both pointed out that their acknowledgement of institutional racism did not mean that all their officers were racist.
Ten other forces have said they have racist officers in their ranks, with most saying this is an inevitable consequence of recruitment from a society where racism was widespread.
Other forces said that everything was being done to ensure racist officers were excluded. George Hedges, Chief Constable of Durham, said: "I'm not aware of any incidents of overt racism being displayed by officers on the streets of Co Durham. There's inherent racism at all levels of society. We are aware of that and since we recruit from that society we do our best through training and persuasion to eliminate prejudice and discrimination."
But relations between the police and the black community remain fractured.
Yesterday's PCA conference was the subject of an angry picket by members of the United Families and Friends Campaign, who complained about not being admitted. The campaign included relatives of several black people who have died in police custody, including Myrna Simpson, the mother of Joy Gardner, the Jamaican immigrant who died after being restrained by police in 1993.
Mrs Weinberg, who was allowed into the conference to speak on behalf of the families, said the group wanted the PCA abolished and replaced by an independent statutory body to examine complaints against the police. It also wants a public inquiry into deaths in custody.
Earlier Mr Michael disclosed that provisional figures for the year ending in March showed that 68 people had died in police custody during that 12-month period, up from 57 the previous year.
He told the 350-strong audience, which included senior police officers, that they risked falling below the standards of openness being set by other criminal justice agencies.
"The Prison Service faces similar difficulties where deaths occur in prisons. They have been more open about their documents for some time," he said. "I do not think the police would wish to be left behind and hope that police forces will take a positive view in future."
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