Black people dying in police custody should surprise no one

Black people account for 3% of the population, but 8% of deaths in custody. As a former chief prosecutor, I know this is only the end point of a system that disproportionately suspects, arrests, convicts and imprisons BAME people

In 1998, Christopher Alder, a former British army paratrooper, was injured during a fight and ended up in hospital. He was then arrested for a breach of the peace and taken to Queens Gardens police station in Hull. CCTV footage shows him lying face down on the floor of the station, motionless, with his trousers around his ankles. Officers stand around laughing while he lies there, dying, for 10 minutes.

Three years later, an inquest returned a verdict of unlawful killing – because the officers did nothing while, for three minutes of that time, Alder was unable to breathe. A year later, five police officers were prosecuted for manslaughter and misconduct in public office. All were acquitted on the direction of the judge. A review by the Independent Police Complaints Commission in 2006 concluded that four of the officers present were guilty of the “most serious neglect” and “unwitting racism”. To add insult to injury, in 2011, Alder’s family learned that they had buried a woman instead of Christopher. 

This is a shocking case of a death in police custody – but of course it is not the only one. In the past weeks, as protesters have taken to the streets, some of the names of those who have died have been on demonstrators’ lips and placards. Among them is Sean Rigg, who died at Brixton police station in 2008. An inquest found police had used “unsuitable force”. One officer was prosecuted, for giving false evidence; he was found not guilty. No other officer was prosecuted.

In 2011, Kingsley Burrell died while detained by police at a mental health unit in Birmingham. An inquest found that prolonged restraint had been a significant factor. Again, three officers prosecuted for lying under oath were found not guilty. In 2017, Darren Cumberbatch was punched repeatedly, beaten with a baton and Tasered by police. An inquest found police force was “excessive” and “probably avoidable”. His family are still waiting to hear if anybody will be prosecuted. Just over two weeks ago, Simeon Francis was found dead in a cell in Devon. We know little about the circumstances, and I fear that his family won’t be getting answers any time soon.

Since 1969, just one police officer has been convicted for their role in the death of someone in their care (and in that case, the officer received a suspended sentence). That is not to say there haven’t been prosecutions – but the evidence has never been sufficient to persuade a jury that a police officer should be responsible. 

Why is this? Well, invariably, in such cases the only witnesses are other police officers; there may also be CCTV and some medical or forensic evidence. In the civilian world, friends will give evidence against friends in the most serious of crimes, but after three decades working in criminal law, I cannot recall a death-in-custody case where a police officer has given evidence against another police officer. Juries are loth to convict police officers generally, but the tendency is especially stark in these cases. One successful prosecution of an individual in 50 years tells its own story.

Of course, deaths in custody are only a small percentage of deaths following police contact, which include apparent suicides and police shootings, among other categories. Well-known examples include Rashan Charles, who died after being chased and restrained; Edson Da Costa, who died of cardiorespiratory arrest after being stopped by police; and Mark Duggan, whose shooting sparked riots in 2011. Nor will I soon forget how Zahid Mubarek was murdered by his racist cellmate Robert Stewart at Feltham Young Offenders Institution. They were housed together despite the fact that Stewart’s hostility to BAME people was widely known.

It is true that many other people die in police custody, but black people account for 8% of these deaths, while accounting for only 3% of the population. They are dying disproportionately and the perception remains that race leads to a different outcome, which is often premature death.  

Partly this is because this is merely the end point of a system that disproportionately suspects, arrests, charges, remands, convicts and imprisons people from black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities. A David Cameron-commissioned report by David Lammy found in 2017 that the colour of your skin has a measurable impact on how you are treated at every stage in the justice system. 

Zahid Mubarek, who was victim of a brutal racially aggrevated murder in March 2000 while detained at Feltham Young Offenders Institution for shoplifting.
Zahid Mubarek, who was victim of a brutal racially aggrevated murder in March 2000 while detained at Feltham Young Offenders Institution for shoplifting. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/Teri Pengilley (commissioned)

So, for instance, at a time when the stated determination of the government has been to divert young offenders from the formal criminal justice approach, the proportion of young BAME prisoners has gone up, from 25% in 2006 to 41%. The numbers offending and reoffending also rose. Historically, stop-and-search powers have disproportionately targeted BAME people. In 2015, in response to widespread alarm, the Home Office and police tightened training and guidance of police officers, which instantly reduced the numbers being arrested. However, following a spate of knife crime, the rules were again changed and the numbers have moved back up to historic highs.

Between April 2018 and March 2019, there were four stop and searches for every 1,000 white people, and 38 for every for 1,000 black people. Lammy’s analysis of sentencing data showed BAME defendants were more likely to receive prison sentences for drug offences, even when previous convictions were taken into account. This was reinforced by research commissioned by the Sentencing Council published in January, which showed that in drugs cases, if you are from a minority the odds are 40%-50% higher that your ethnicity will contribute to sentencing decisions.

Lammy’s report proved in effect that if you placed a white man and a BAME man in the same predicament with the same previous history, with the same or similar evidence, the BAME man was more likely to be stopped, arrested, charged, denied bail, convicted and sentenced to prison. Then, while in prison, he was less likely to be supported to rehabilitate, more likely to reoffend and more likely to die in custody – and his family were less likely to get justice following that death. 

Lammy recommended urgent reform. However, three years later, there is not one BAME chief constable – in fact there has only ever been one. Until very recently, there were no BAME commissioners dealing with miscarriages of justice and not one member of the 240-strong parole board was BAME. There has never been a BAME director of public prosecutions and the number of BAME judges and magistrates, while it is increasing from a very low base, is still well below the proportion that will reflect the communities they serve. When I was chief crown prosecutor and then chief executive of the country’s police and crime commissioners, I would often sit in meetings of criminal justice leaders and be the only non-white person in the room apart from the person taking the minutes.

I was born in Britain, to a family that has worked with the British army for half a century, one of whom was murdered by the IRA for doing so. I have spent much of my professional career tackling crimes and misbehaviours in all communities regardless of race or religion, yet I too have been subject to racism in the course of my work.

One of the last things I did as a prosecutor was to ensure that the district judge Richard Hollingworth could no longer preside over criminal cases. This came about because of his response when one of my team was trying to fix a trial date to accommodate the victim, Miss Patel. “It won’t be a problem,” said Hollingworth. “She won’t be working anywhere important where she can’t get the time off. She’ll only be working in a shop or off-licence.” Where she was working was irrelevant. As it happens, she was a law graduate, but his prejudice was there for all to see.  

When I was less senior, I recall asking another judge to bail the defendant because he had no previous convictions. I was wrong, the judge said. I replied that there was nothing on the police national computer. But he was adamant. It was a busy “first appearance” list so I hadn’t seen the defendant come up from the cells behind me. I looked and saw he was a young black man. I knew what the judge was saying and I gave him a stare that told him I knew and he should back off. He did. 

I recall prosecuting a case where I, the defence counsel, the judge, the usher, the court legal adviser, the defence solicitor, the court stenographer and the security were all BAME and the defendant was white. How we all laughed! How we all thought this would never happen again. How right we were.

The same systemic racism applies to victims from BAME communities. There is not enough research, but we do know that if you are a white victim of domestic abuse you will suffer, on average, 35 incidents before action is taken by an authority. The equivalent number of incidents for BAME victims is 100. The latter have less confidence in reporting, higher familial and community obstacles to overcome, and fewer properly funded support groups to advise them. And when it’s more difficult for people to ask for help, it’s easier for the system to ignore them.

All of this means I am not surprised to see people marching in the streets during lockdown. The trust deficit between those in power and those they lead is greater than at any time in living history. The lies we are told have been amplified and adopted as a strategy by people who should know better. 

• This article was amended on 12 and 16 June 2020 to make clear that one police officer has been convicted since 1969 over a death in custody (the case of Craig Boyd where in 2007 a duty constable got a suspended sentence for misconduct after Boyd hanged himself in a Derby police cell in 2004). Text and a heading had spoken of no convictions. For the record: two prosecutions for breach of health and safety succeeded against police forces, not individuals: Devon & Cornwall in 2019 over the 2012 death of Thomas Orchard, and the Metropolitan police in 2007 over the 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. Mention of a Sentencing Council study was also corrected: the study spoke of the odds ratio of ethnicity’s contribution to sentencing, not a 1.5 times greater likelihood of going to prison.



Nazir Afzal

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Vulnerable people and deaths in police custody | Letters
Letters: Nik Wood and Matthew Scott respond to the Elish Angiolini report on deaths in police custody, while Nick Moss says that until we stop ‘othering’ prisoners, prison conditions will not improve


08, Nov, 2017 @6:34 PM

Article image
As a black man, joining the British police in the 80s made me question my sanity
Leroy Logan was shocked by the racism he encountered in the Metropolitan police. Things improved after the Stephen Lawrence inquiry – but sometimes it feels as if the bad old days are back

As told to Gregory Robinson

11, Jun, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Sarah Reed's mother: 'My daughter was failed by many and I was ignored'
In January, Sarah Reed was found dead in her cell at Holloway prison. She had been the victim of a notorious police brutality case in 2012 and suffered mental health issues known to prison officers, doctors, social workers, lawyers and police. So why was she there? Her mother Marylin tells her story for the first time

Amelia Gentleman and Damien Gayle

17, Feb, 2016 @4:22 PM

Article image
No convictions over 500 black and Asian deaths in custody
Research by Institute of Race Relations accuses state institutions of ongoing prejudice and ‘culpable lack of care’

Mark Townsend, home affairs editor

21, Mar, 2015 @8:07 PM

Article image
Want to make the UK less racist? 20 positive ways to bring about lasting change
There are no quick fixes for the racism that is so ingrained in British society. But, from education and work to voting and organising, there are steps we can all take for a more equal world

Kehinde Andrews

10, Jun, 2020 @12:14 PM

Article image
UK protesters accuse police of targeting black people during lockdown
Protest organisers condemn use of stop and search in areas with large BAME populations

Aamna Mohdin and Vikram Dodd

01, Jun, 2020 @6:46 PM

Article image
UN calls for end of ‘impunity’ for police violence against black people
Report launched in aftermath of George Floyd murder cites example of 2018 death of Kevin Clarke in UK

Aamna Mohdin Community affairs correspondent

28, Jun, 2021 @10:02 AM

Article image
Why do UK media fail to cover the deaths of black people in custody?
A journalist argues that, unlike in the US, such deaths do not generate a national conversation because mainstream media platforms marginalise diverse voices

Roy Greenslade

19, Apr, 2016 @1:55 PM

Article image
Paris attacks lead to surprise ring-fencing of UK police funding
Outcome of campaign by senior officers was sealed by need to reassure public

Alan Travis Home affairs editor

25, Nov, 2015 @6:35 PM

Article image
Benjamin Zephaniah: 'There isn't enough anger in politics'
Benjamin Zephaniah started out reciting poems at punk gigs. Now he's one of our best-loved poets, and will guest edit Radio 4's Today next week. Brace yourselves, he's got plenty to say

Aida Edemariam

28, Dec, 2012 @7:00 PM