A reflection on deaths that took place on 15 April 1989 and the state’s response.
As a teenager I watched the Hillsborough tragedy unfold on the telly. It was a Saturday afternoon and my sisters and I were doing our chores or homework. I remember one of my sisters calling us and we crowded around the TV to watch the grim scenes. Later that same night, events were happening ninety miles away in Small Heath, Birmingham, which would have a lasting impact on our family.
PC Tony Salt was on duty with another officer, PC Mark Berry, supposedly observing an ‘illegal drinking den’ at 274 Green Lane, Small Heath. Instead, Salt and his colleague abandoned their duties and got drunk at a pub further down the road. In the early hours of 16 April 1989, a drunk Salt, still on duty, returning to his post, fell over, hit his head and died. But these facts did not emerge until some time later.
The now defunct West Midlands Serious Crime Squad (notorious for its corruption, revealed in miscarriages of justice involving the Birmingham Six, Keith Twitchell, Derek Treadaway, the Bridgewater Four and many others) sprang in to action and three black men (Peter Gibbs, Mark Samuels and Tony Francis) were duly arrested. Confessions were extracted and the men were charged in connection with Salt’s death. The facts of the case were later laid bare by Chris Mullin in a debate at the House of Commons in December 1991. Our dad, Gurnam Singh Athwal, was also charged in connection with Salt’s death – he happened to own the ‘illegal drinking den’.
Peter Gibbs, Mark Samuels and Tony Francis were remanded on suspicion of the murder of Tony Salt, spent time in prison and were ultimately released. But at what cost? Last year, a friend of Tony Francis called Salt’s inclusion on the West Midlands Police memorial to police officers fallen in the line of duty ‘another slap in the face’.
The recent unsuccessful prosecution of Nicky Jacobs shows the lengths the police will go to in order to secure convictions for those allegedly involved in the deaths of police officers. The Met’s crusades in Tottenham, costing millions and conducted over twenty-nine years, beggar belief. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decision that there was ‘sufficient evidence’ and that it was ‘in the public interest to prosecute’ Nicky Jacobs in the first place also beggared belief. Against this background the Met police statement, following the not guilty verdict, that they will ‘not give up on bringing Keith’s killers to justice’, is chilling, considering that the zeal to see someone convicted for Blakelock’s murder in 1985 led to three innocent men, Winston Silcott, Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite, spending four years in prison.
It’s a shame that the criminal justice system does not work with the same zeal for families of those killed by the police. Do the police kill with impunity? Despite the fact that eighteen unlawful killing verdicts have been recorded at inquests, the CPS response always seems to be ‘not enough evidence to prosecute’. The last time a police officer was convicted in connection with a BME death ‘in’ police custody was in 1971 – and that was only because police officers broke ranks and told the truth about the violence meted out to David Oluwale.
How can bereaved families have confidence in the police if they are unaccountable? The only way is for families to fight long and hard.
The achievements of the Hillsborough families is testament to a campaigning which never ever gave up. It has led to the quashing of the inquest verdicts recorded in 1990 and the new inquests currently taking place in Warrington. The Hillsborough families may now hope that justice will be done. Maybe those responsible for the deaths of ninety-six people will be prosecuted.
And what happens to the loved ones of those killed in police custody? Again, their families have to fight long and hard. Numerous families of those killed by police (and prison officers) campaign individually and collectively, as the United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC), to find out the truth behind the deaths of their loved ones. Every year since 1999, UFFC families have remembered those who have died in an annual remembrance march to Downing Street. And last year, in a historic meeting, Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG) members met UFFC families. Margaret Aspinall told Janet Alder and Marcia Rigg, whose brothers were killed in police custody, ‘to never ever, never ever give up’.
It is twenty-five years since the Hillsborough tragedy and today we remember the ninety-six who were killed. But I also remember our dad, a father to six of us, who never got the chance to clear his name in relation to Salt’s death. He himself died with charges in connection with the constable’s death hanging over his head – charges which, our mother fervently believes, contributed to his untimely death. On 19 December 1989, aged 49, the day after he appeared in the magistrate’s court, he died of a heart attack.