Socialist Worker

Guns and crime: more police powers a recipe for injustice

Weyman Bennett unravels the myths behind the headlines on gun crime and asks why it took over four years to get an inquest verdict of unlawful killing over Roger Sylvester

Issue No. 1872

I remember the night Roger Sylvester died in January 1999.

A wave of anger swept across Tottenham, where I live and where Roger was restrained by the police outside his home and taken to a local hospital.

When I heard of his death, I immediately joined lots of other people protesting at the local police station. The Sylvester family was there then and they have never stopped campaigning for justice since.

Last week an inquest unanimously decided that Roger Sylvester was unlawfully killed.

The jury forewoman said, 'He was held in restraint too long and no attempt made to alter the position of restraint. He was killed unlawfully.'

Roger Sylvester was a 30 year old black man who had suffered from mental health problems but had been much better in the two years before his death.

He worked at a council-run drop-in centre. But on the night of 11 January the police went to Roger's home to investigate a disturbance.

They detained Roger under the Mental Health Act. The officers always denied using undue force on Roger but he was pinned to the ground, naked despite the bitter cold, by up to eight officers.

Left alone

Roger was taken to a nearby hospital and left alone with six officers. They restrained him. Later he stopped breathing and fell into a coma.

A friend who visited him in hospital told Socialist Worker at the time, 'Roger was swollen, battered and bruised. He looked like he was hit by a bulldozer.'

Roger never recovered from the brain damage he sustained and after seven days his life support machine was switched off. The police officers carried on in their jobs.

A campaign for justice for Roger and his family was launched immediately. Hundreds of people marched through north London and attended protest rallies over the years, keeping Roger's memory alive.

The Sylvester family turned to the trade unions and other campaigning organisations to help them fight for justice.

The family had to endure smears about Roger. Just hours after his death the police said he was on drugs. Later they said he was violent and had severe mental problems.

Choked to death

After the inquest verdict last week, his 68 year old mother, Sheila, said, 'All they did was demonise Roger. I thank God and the campaign. It has been four years and nine months of hard work. We have had a lot to put up with.'

In 2001 the Sylvester family tried to challenge the Crown Prosecution Service for not bringing any criminal charges against the police. Lord Chief Justice Woolf told them to wait until after the inquest.

Charges could now follow. But many of us remember what happened to Christopher Alder.

He choked to death in a Hull police station in 1998. Two years later an inquest returned a verdict of unlawful killing but no one was charged or lost their job.

The calls for more police on the streets with greater powers will mean more people being treated like Roger Sylvester.

Roger was unlawfully killed years after the Stephen Lawrence case was supposed to have spurred the police on to tackle racism in their ranks.

Just four weeks ago Mikey Powell, another young black man, died in police custody in Birmingham. His death is being investigated.

Roger Sylvester's family have been tireless and amazingly courageous in their fight for justice for Roger and to try and make sure no other family suffers as they did.

Do new shootings mean Britain's like Baghdad?

THE TELEGRAPH'S headline on Sunday was, 'Britain 'Like Baghdad' As Three More Shot'.

Gun crime is 'spreading across Britain like a cancer', said the Observer, quoting a senior police officer.

Jewellery shop owner Marian Bates was shot dead in Arnold, a suburb of Nottingham, last week. Two further drive-by shootings in Reading and Hertfordshire also hit the headlines.

Is gun crime really spiralling out of control, as the papers claim?

In fact, the murder rate has not risen in the last 20 years. Like most crimes it is stable or actually falling.

In London the number of fatal shootings actually fell by 16 percent last year, and that's according to the police themselves.

They also say gun crime accounts for just 0.003 percent of all the crime they deal with.

Some areas of inner London associated by the press and politicians with crime, such as Southwark and Lambeth, saw a massive drop in gun crime last year.

So why do the press talk of a gun crime epidemic?

First, the figures are so low that it only takes one untypical incident to send the percentages soaring.

Secondly, gun crimes are recorded by the number of victims. For example, one man holding up ten bank customers at gun point will be counted as ten gun crimes.

About 60 percent of all gun deaths are suicides, not murders.

Of all recorded gun crime, 58 percent involves air rifles rather than firearms.

Instead of being given these basic facts and reasons for the violence that does take place, we are offered a nauseating bandwagon after any fatal shooting.

Politicians, senior police officers and newspaper editors queue up to exploit family grief and public fear for their own agendas.

Home secretary David Blunkett told the Labour Party conference last week that he would tackle gun crime if Labour is elected to a third term.

He wants to be seen to be the hard man of the cabinet, bringing in draconian new penalties, including a five year minimum sentence for illegal gun ownership.

The police want to pose as overstretched, so they can appeal for ever more funds.

And the newspapers will use any tragedy to sell more copies.

There have been repeated scares about inner city gun violence, usually linked to 'Yardie' drug gangs.

There is thinly disguised racism in linking gun crime to black people.

A spate of gangland shootings took place in Essex a few years ago, all involving whites, but that didn't get the same media treatment.

And the real motor behind the use of guns rarely gets mentioned. Across the world some 7.4 billion handguns were produced last year. Britain is the biggest producer of such guns, according to the Economist magazine in July.

If the government is serious about gun crime, it would tackle this. Instead it wines and dines the gun makers at events like the Docklands arms fair.

There is a growing revulsion against gun deaths. It is important that this anger is directed at those who run the big killing machines and those who create the conditions of despair that wreck our lives.

Figure it out

60: The percentage of gun deaths that are suicides not murder

58: The percentage of gun crimes that involve air rifles not firearms

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Article information

Sat 11 Oct 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1872
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