Police guilty of 'unwitting racism' over custody death

Ian Herbert
Tuesday 28 March 2006 00:00 BST

Four police officers who chatted and whistled while a former paratrooper died on a police station floor in front of them have been told to explain their behaviour after a report found they were guilty of racism.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission's (IPCC) chairman, Nick Hardwick, said the officers present when Christopher Alder choked to death on his vomit while handcuffed were guilty of the same "unwitting racism" uncovered by Lord Macpherson in his inquiry into the Metropolitan Police's botched 1993 investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Their failure to assist Mr Alder, 37, was "largely due to assumptions they made about him based on negative racial stereotypes", he said.

"I cannot say for certain that Mr Alder would have been treated more appropriately had he been white ­ but I do believe the fact he was black stacked the odds more heavily against him."

PCs Matthew Barr, Neil Blakey, Nigel Dawson and Sergeant John Dunn, who were granted early retirement with pay-outs of between £44,000 and £66,000 15 months ago, were guilty of the "most serious neglect of duty" amounting to "unwitting racism", Mr Hardwick concluded.

Chief Constable Tim Hollis of Humberside immediately apologised to the Alder family "for failure to treat Christopher with sufficient compassion and to the desired standard". But the officers criticised for refusing to co-operate indicated they did not accept the findings. Since manslaughter charges against them have collapsed, the family's solicitors are pressing for a public inquiry to compel them to speak.

The report exceeded expectations of Mr Alder's sister, Janet, who has campaigned about the plight of her brother, a Falklands veteran decorated for service in Northern Ireland, who died face-down in the custody suite at Queen's Gardens police station in Hull with his trousers and underpants around his knees.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) rejected Ms Alder's request to include any mention of alleged racial intent when it brought manslaughter charges against the officers in a 2002 trial, which eventually collapsed.

But Ms Alder presented the IPCC with alleged evidence of the word " banana" being uttered in CCTV footage of Christopher's slow death. The IPCC uncovered other evidence of implicit racism, including the officers' willingness to attribute Mr Alder's position to "bad attitude" rather than to injury, an unwillingness to touch or rouse him and use of the word "coloured" and "of negroid appearance".

There were also monkey imitations, clearly audible though not necessarily directed at Mr Alder.

The IPCC criticised the former deputy chief constable Graham Clark for initially refusing to set up a disciplinary tribunal. It also found that Ms Alder had been presented with wrong dates and facts.An inquest jury decided six years ago that the death was unlawful but the CPS ruled that there was insufficient evidence to charge the officers.

The family's solicitor, Ruth Bundey, found expert witnesses to overturn that decision. But the criminal case was thrown out amid contradictory medical evidence. Humberside Police subsequently cleared the officers of neglect of duty.

The IPCC report, ordered after the CCTV footage was screened in the BBC's Rough Justice two years ago, follows a court verdict in January that Humberside Police should pay damages to a man charged with causing Mr Alder grievous bodily harm hours before he died.

Janet Alder said: "Eight years on, these officers have never answered one single question. They ought to give their version of events."

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