Socialist Worker

Deaths in Custody – When will it end?

by Claudia Webbe
Issue No. 2023

Saturday 28 October will reflect a remembrance rally in Trafalgar Square with a silent vigil along Whitehall to Downing Street for those who have died in custody. Organised by the United Families and Friends Campaign, the annual event provides a constant memory and mirror to British society of those who have died in custody of the police, prison and psychiatric care institutions.

Serious questions remain about the disproportionate number of Black men who die in police custody following the use of force and the resultant police impunity. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is currently investigating the case of the businessman Frank Ogboru who was in the UK on holiday from Lagos, Nigeria when he died in police custody a month ago. Several reports indicate that he died whilst police officers in London sought to restrain him during the process of arrest. In August 2006, officers involved during the death of Mikey Powell in 2003 although prosecuted were cleared in court of all charges and paradoxically during the same month a new practitioner's forum on deaths in custody was launched chaired by John Wadham, the Independent Police Complaints Authority Deputy-Chair. This new group has already been widely criticised for its lack of involvement and engagement with grass roots campaigning organisations.

A new Corporate Manslaughter Bill is being proposed, which will make companies liable for prosecution if they fail to ensure the safety of workers or the public – the Bill would create a new offence of corporate manslaughter where death occurred because of management failure. It removes Crown immunity for public bodies and even includes making the government and government bodies accountable, however the civil rights group Liberty argues that the Bill, if passed, sets out a list of functions under which public bodies can be exempt and thus it would be these exemptions which would allow many government and public bodies to 'literally get away with murder'. A new Coroners Reform Bill is also being introduced, which includes a number of positive measures such as the charter for bereaved families; however INQUEST has already outlined a number of failings including the lack of requirement for mandatory disclosure of information.

There is a recurrent incidence of Black males who die following an arrest where, directly or indirectly, as a result of police action in seeking to restrain or arrest, it is alleged that the police used force. For many in the Black community the generally held view is that the police use of force relates directly to the issue of racism, whereby racism relates to a structure of dominance and social control that permeates throughout British society.

The feature of the police organisation that unifies all of its disparate activities is the ability to use coercive force to 'define and enforce collectively binding decisions on the members of a society in the name of a common interest or general will'. The police have been given legal powers and equipped and indeed required to deal with every exigency in which force may have to be used. This overwhelming and privileged power however, requires the support of the wider community and civil society.

During 1998 Britain was found guilty of torture or rather 'cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment', by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which found a number of 'subjects of concern' in Britain's record. These subjects ranged from deaths in custody, through to the use of detention centres and plastic bullets in Northern Ireland, to 'the dramatic increase in the number of inmates held in prisons in England and Wales'. The conclusion at that time was that the British police seemed to have difficulty keeping people, especially Black men, alive while in detention.

Even today, far too often as I travel around the Black community and listen to the stories told, the conspiracy theory of racism emerges, which states the police organisation which is supposed to uphold justice and protect Black and minority ethnic communities from racist attacks, is itself responsible for so much of the violence and injustice suffered. To the extent, as a result of continued deaths in custody and lack of redress, the police are still viewed as the same oppressive system as the gang of racists white youths that got away with killing Stephen Lawrence.

Yet, what is that would make individual police officers contribute to the death of Black men in custody? Is there a 'racialisation' of envy and desire, the desire to possess certain idealised attributes of the 'other' and the desire to destroy them because they signify what is felt to be lacking? Do police believe in the stereotype of the 'superhuman attributes of the Black man'? Is the 'alien presence' of Black men seen to be such a threat to identity that their total annihilation is required? Do police practices transgress the 'rules of civilised' conduct, which they are supposed to be upholding in their treatment of Black people?

The relationship between prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviour has been the subject of many debates within social psychology. Indeed sociologists in the 1950s like Gordon Allport suggested attitudes have a direct and dynamic influence on overt behaviour. Attitudes it is argued creates a 'readiness to respond' or 'set the stage' for action and thus many argue that it is these deep prejudices and attitudes along with institutional failures and lack of redress, which lead to the recurrent number of Black deaths in custody.

The police have made much progress over the years, legislation has been tightened and an Independent Police Complaints Authority has been established, however deaths in custody, particularly the disproportionate number of Black men remains a worrying feature, thus the work of the United Families and Friends Campaign and others like them deserve our continued support.

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Sat 21 Oct 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2023
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