The spotlight is back on black deaths at the hands of police

The spotlight is back on black deaths at the hands of police


Written by: Harmit Athwal

IRR News examines the recent killing of Mark Duggan by armed Met police officers in the context of similar deaths.

The IRR has monitored black[1] deaths in custody since the 1970s as young black men tend to die at the hands of police and prison officers in disproportionate numbers. Our monitoring is also in response to the historic concerns of BME communities, and the African-Caribbean community in particular, who have argued that, ever since the 1960s, they have been subjected to a different kind of policing where disproportionate force and discriminatory criminal procedures are used.[2]

Mark Duggan was shot dead by police on Thursday 4 August on Ferry Lane in Tottenham. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which investigates such deaths, released a statement on the same day that included the words: ‘An MPS officer was taken to hospital but has now been discharged.'[3] The press, were quick to report that a police officer had been taken to hospital following the shooting – the suggestion being that he had been injured by the as yet unnamed man who had been shot dead.[4] The following day came another press release: ‘At around 6.15 pm officers from Trident, accompanied by officers from the Specialist Firearms Command (CO19), stopped a minicab in Ferry Lane, Tottenham to carry out an arrest. Shots were fired and a 29-year-old man, who was a passenger in the cab, died at the scene. The attempted arrest was part of a pre-planned operation under Trident. It is believed that two shots were fired by a firearms officer, equipped with a Heckler & Koch MP5 carbine. A non-police issue handgun was recovered at the scene. An officer’s radio which appears to have a bullet lodged in it has also been recovered. Both the radio and the handgun are being sent for expedited forensic tests. The exact sequence of events is subject to the IPCC investigation. A CO19 officer was taken to hospital as a precautionary measure but has since been discharged.'[5]

On Saturday 6 August, Mark Duggan’s family and friends, upset at the lack of information about the circumstances surrounding the shooting, held a demonstration outside Tottenham police station.[6] There they waited for a senior police officer to come and talk to them; no-one came.[7] The family went home and, soon after, a police officer allegedly struck a young woman who had joined the protest.[8] Tottenham erupted, followed closely by other towns and cities across Britain.

As the riots raged, both the IPCC and the Met police went on the PR offensive, with the IPCC appearing to blame the Met for failing to keep the family informed and vice-versa. On Sunday 7 August the IPCC was forced to defend its actions and issued another statement.[9]

And then on Monday, an even more strongly worded statement was issued by the IPCC Commissioner responsible for investigating the death: ‘I am aware of various media reports suggesting that we have not had adequate contact with Mr Duggan’s family since his death. Following my meeting with the family yesterday (Sunday) I am very clear that their concerns were not about lack of contact or support from the IPCC. Their concerns were about lack of contact from the police in delivering news of his death to Mark’s parents. It is never the responsibility of the IPCC to deliver a message regarding someone’s death and I have told Mr Duggan’s family that I would be addressing this issue with the Met and that, if necessary, this would become part of our investigation … I am also aware that Mr Duggan’s family were unhappy at waiting at the police station for such a long time. The IPCC was contacted by the MPS at 8.30 pm on Saturday evening. We were told that Mr Duggan’s partner had been there and wanted answers to a variety of questions, but that she had now left.’ The statement then went on to detail the IPCC’s contact with Mark Duggan’s family and how their investigation had been initiated.[10]

On the same day the Met’s deputy assistant commissioner also apologised to the family saying: ‘I want to apologise to the Duggan family because I think both the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and the Metropolitan Police could have managed that family’s needs more effectively.'[11]

By the Wednesday, six days after shooting, a slightly clearer picture was emerging as the IPCC released further information. Mark Duggan had been shot twice, once in the chest (which probably killed him) and once in his right upper arm. We were also told that ‘The bullet lodged in the MPS radio is a “jacketed round”. This is a police issue bullet and, whilst it is still subject to DNA analysis, it is consistent with having been fired from an MPS Heckler and Koch MP5 … The officer whose radio was hit was taken to Homerton hospital where he was examined and discharged later that night.'[12] Mark Duggan, on the other hand, died where he fell on Ferry Lane in Tottenham, he did not make it to hospital.

Stereotyping the victim

On examining deaths that have occurred over the years involving members of the African-Caribbean community in particular, it becomes clear that, in the immediate aftermath of death, information is placed in the public domain, citing unnamed police sources, which casts doubt on the character of the deceased, tending to frame him as a violent and dangerous black criminal. This information is released long before any investigation, post-mortem or inquest has been carried out. The victim is said to be a habitual drug user, a drug dealer, someone with a violent past etc, all of which not only pre-judges the victim but also provides vindication for police action such as a stop, a search or use of force or particular restraint techniques. In this way, the media and the police create a particular framework for dealing with incidents involving the police and the African-Caribbean community, one in which extreme force against black criminality is seen as a necessary evil.

By the end of the week following Mark Duggan’s death, the campaign about him was in full swing. We were told by unnamed police sources that the police officer involved had ‘an honest-held belief that he was in imminent danger of him and his colleagues being shot’. Mark Duggan had already been labelled a ‘gangster’ or ‘suspected gangster’ and the Daily Telegraph and the Sun, amongst others, had published stories that he was linked to ‘Manchester gangsters’.[13] The Daily Mail went even further claiming that ‘Duggan was a “crack dealer” linked to a string of feared gangs’.[14] We were served up the threat of guns, gangsters and drugs, the perfect combination for the Met police to absolve themselves of culpabilty for the death.

What can Mark Duggan’s family expect?

In reality very little is known about the circumstances surrounding Mark Duggan’s death. And in all likelihood very little will be made public until the various official procedures following the death have been completed.

There will be an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which may submit its findings to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS will then decide if the police officers involved should face prosecution. This is highly unlikely, as there has only been one successful prosecution of police officers for their involvement in the death of a black person – and that was in 1971.[15] And then, depending on their findings, the IPCC could also recommend that the officers involved should be disciplined but again this is very unlikely and would not amount to much. And then many years down the line an inquest will probably be held. I say probably here, as Mark Duggan’s family might well have to take legal action to ensure one is held. Six years after his death, the family of Azelle Rodney, who was also shot dead by the Met police, is still waiting for a full inquest into his death. (See below for further details on the death of Azelle Rodney.) Instead, the family have had to settle for an inquiry conducted by a judge, because the police’s surveillance evidence had to be kept secret!

Unfortunately, the reality for the families of those who die in custody is bleak. They have to fight long and hard for any semblance of justice. The sustained campaigns fought by the families of Christopher Alder, Joy Gardner, Mikey Powell, Habib Ullah, Sean Rigg and Brian Douglas (to name but a few) is a testament to the tenacity which is needed.

Shadow over Tottenham

Tottenham has a history of police brutality. The first riots in Tottenham, in 1985, were triggered following the death of Cynthia Jarrett after police officers arrived to search her home on the Broadwater Farm estate. That event and the shooting of Cherry Groce in Brixton, were to lead to full scale urban disturbances in Britain.[16]

The subsequent murder of PC Keith Blakelock while policing the disturbances was horrific. Three men, Winston Silcott, Engin Raghip (a vulnerable young man with learning difficulties), and Mark Braithwaite were charged and convicted of his murder. However their convictions were quashed in 1991.[17] As a result, the police began reinvestigating the death and twenty-six years after Blakelock’s death, no stone has been left unturned to find the killer of the policeman. To the black community this diligence and commitment contrasts with police investigations of black deaths.

At a recent meeting in Tottenham, Stafford Scott, an active community campaigner spoke about the shadow that the murder of Keith Blakelock had cast over Tottenham, with repeated raids over the years on the homes of families and numerous people arrested and then released on bail as the police ‘fished’ for further evidence. Currently, a number of men remain on bail for alleged involvement in Blakelock’s death.

Tottenham was also the home of 30-year-old Roger Sylvester, who died in January 1999, after being restrained by up to eight police officers following an incident at his home that resulted in his detention under the Mental Health Act. He was taken to St Ann’s hospital, Haringey, where he was again restrained by six police officers. He stopped breathing and was resuscitated but was in a coma. He died seven days later in the Whittington hospital without regaining consciousness. In April 1999, the Met police apologised to the family for an inaccurate and misleading press release that they had issued as Roger Sylvester was on life support stating which said that he had been ‘aggressive and vociferous’.[18] The inquest in October 2003 returned an unlawful killing verdict.[19] However this was overturned in the High Court after the verdict was appealed by the eight police officers involved.[20]

Procedural irregularities following police shootings

According to Helen Shaw, co-director of INQUEST (which is the only organisation in the UK which assists the families of those who die in custody): ‘Since 2001, thirty people have been shot dead by police in England and Wales, eight of whom were from black and minority ethnic communities. C019, the Metropolitan Police’s specialist armed unit which killed Mark Duggan, has previously been criticised for the planning and surveillance of operations which have led to other deaths in London, including the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube Station in 2005. A public inquiry is currently under way into the death of Azelle Rodney who was shot in a similar operation in 2005 which involved a “hard stop” interception of the car by armed police. The investigation and inquest into Mark Duggan’s death and the inquiry into Azelle Rodney’s fatal shooting must reveal the truth about these deaths and examine in detail the way in which the Metropolitan Police use lethal force.’

A number of questionable deaths at the hands of armed police officers have taken place. Deaths in which the level of force appears to be disproportionate to the threat posed by the victim.[21]

One of the most high profile shootings in recent years is that of Jean Charles de Menezes. A 27-year-old Brazillian electrician, he was shot seven times by police on a tube at Stockwell tube station on 22 July 2005. He had been followed from his home in Brixton as a suspect in the attempted terrorist bombings the previous day. Immediately following his death, unnamed police sources quoted in the press, completely misinformed the public about his actions that day. He was said to be wearing a bulky jacket, that he vaulted over the ticket barrier and that he ran in spite of police warnings. Information was also leaked to the media that he was here illegally. Significant CCTV evidence from the cameras at Stockwell station went missing and police surveillance logs were altered. In July 2006 the CPS decided that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any of the officers but recommended that the Met police should be tried for a breach of Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 for failing in its duty of care for de Menezes. In November 2007 the Met were found guilty of breaching health and safety rules and failing in its duty to protect members of the public, and fined £175,000 and ordered to pay £385,000 costs. The inquest into the death opened on 22 September 2008 and police officers were granted anonymity. The coroner Sir Michael Wright refused to allow the jury to consider an unlawful killing verdict and on 12 December 2008 they returned an open verdict.

The death of Azelle Rodney, in April 2005, bears similarities to the killing of Mark Duggan. His death and the subsequent legal wranglings have ultimately resulted in the current ‘secret inquest’ which is being held into his death.

Azelle Rodney, a 24-year-old, was shot six times by CO19 officers on Hale Road in Edgware, north London. Azelle was in a car with two friends which unknown to them, was being followed by police. The police decided to stop the car and it was penned in by three unmarked police cars, fourteen police officers surrounded the car, the tyres were shot out and an officer pumped eight bullets into the car. There was no evidence that Azelle was armed at the time of the shooting. The IPCC submitted its report to the CPS and in July 2006 it decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any of the officers involved. In August 2007, the coroner announced that he could not proceed with a full inquest into Azelle’s death because of the large number of redactions in police officers’ statements. Then in March 2010, the government announced its intention to investigate the death under the Inquiries Act 2005. Sir Christopher Holland, a retired High Court judge, is the chair of the Inquiry and it will seek ‘to ascertain by inquiring how, where and in what circumstances Azelle Rodney came by his death on 30 April 2005 and then to make any such recommendations as may seem appropriate.’ In October 2010, five years after his death, the inquiry into the death of Azelle Rodney opened. It has, so far, only heard legal arguments and it has heard no evidence from witnesses. The family are still waiting to hear the circumstances behind his death, but they will not be able to see or hear all of the evidence because it is deemed too sensitive. The police officers involved have been granted immunity from prosecution so that they are able to give full accounts of their actions! (You can follow the proceedings of the inquiry here.)

In July 2001, Derek Bennett, a 28-year-old man who suffered from mental health problems, died after being shot by Brixton police because he was carrying a lighter shaped like a gun. Police were called following reports of a man with a gun. Bennett was allegedly challenged by officers, and apparently grabbed another man who was passing by, who then managed to escape. The police then fired six shots. Bennett was hit by four, three of them in the back and one in his shoulder. In July 2002, firearms experts were called in to re-examine the case after the original Police Complaints Authority (PCA) inquiry, conducted by Northumbria police, proved ‘unsatisfactory’. At the inquest in December 2004, the coroner directed the jury to record a verdict of lawful killing. The police officers involved in the shooting were granted anonymity at the inquest. In February 2006, Derek’s family appealed to the High Court against the lawful killing verdict unsuccessfully. Their challenge to this decision at the Court of Appeal was also unsuccessful.

Recent deaths involving police

The IRR monitors all suspicious BME deaths in custody and in the months prior to the shooting of Mark Duggan, there were a number of ‘high profile’ black deaths in police custody. The death of Smiley Culture in March 2011 saw thousands gather to march in his memory, one of the largest such demonstrations in recent years. Smiley (aka David Emmanuel) died from a stab wound following a dawn raid on his home in Warlingham, Surrey by five Met police officers. According to the police he stabbed himself – something his family disputes.

Just two weeks later, 29-year-old Kingsley Burrell died in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, days after being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. According to the Voice Kingsley Burrell called police to ask for help after he and his five-year-old son were intimidated by a group of young people. As a result he was arrested and then later sectioned and taken to the Oleaster mental health unit. He was later transferred to the Seacole unit, where on 30 March, police were again called. Burrell was taken to Queen Elizabeth hospital for treatment to a cut to his eye and was discharged back to the Oleaster centre. He was transferred back to hospital after suffering from a ‘serious medical condition’ and died. His family allege that he was beaten by police officers.

On 31 May 2011, 21-year-old Demetre Fraser fell to his death from the eleventh floor of a Birmingham tower block during a visit by two police officers who were investigating an alleged breach of his bail curfew. Fraser, who was from London, had been bailed to the address following an argument with his girlfriend which had resulted in an assault charge. The complaint had been withdrawn and he was apparently waiting for confirmation from the CPS/police so that he could return home to London.

While the IRR monitors only BME deaths in custody, it is significant, that in the days that followed the killing of Mark Duggan, a number of other men, black and white, have died in custody in incidents involving police weapons such as tasers and pepper spray.

On 16 August, 27-year-old Dale Burns died after being tasered up to three times by police who had been called following reports of a disturbance in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. Then on 22 August, dual-heritage man, Jacob Michael (25), died in hospital after being arrested by Runcorn police. Police arrived to investigate a 999 call and Michael was pepper sprayed and restrained by up to eleven police officers. He was then taken to Runcorn police station where he became unwell. He was then taken to hospital where he was pronounced dead, just two hours after the initial call.

A day later, 53-year-old Philip Hulme died after an incident at his Bolton home. Police had been called to the address and apparently found Hulme suffering from stab wounds. He was tasered and taken to hospital where he died. On 25 August the IPCC announced that ‘there is no requirement for an IPCC investigation into the police action’ as the stab wounds were ‘sustained prior to the police arriving at the address in Over Hulton’.

The death of four men in just nineteen days following contact with police is a worrying development. Considering the current climate, as suspected looters are locked up without bail and the public at large bay for more police powers, those targeted will undoubtedly come from an ‘under-class’ of poor black and white communities. A. Sivanandan, the Director of the IRR, wrote in 1987 in the introduction to Policing Against Black People: ‘The inner-city rebellions of ’81 and ’85, sparked off invariably by aggressive policing, bore witness to that growing divide, but the social and economic conditions which gave rise to it remain starkly unchanged. Consequently, the unemployment and social deprivation that have bitten into these areas, compounded by and underlined by racism, now require more systematic police surveillance and special policing of whole communities. And this has been accompanied by a basic shift in the whole centre of gravity of policing from “law and order” to “public order”.[22] This statement still holds true today.

Many of the family campaigns for justice following deaths in custody (see links below) are still fighting for answers. In the words of the demonstration chant, ‘no justice, no peace’. If deaths at the hands of the police continue at the current rate then most surely the police will be facing their ‘winter of discontent’.

Related links


United Families and Friends Campaign

4WardEver Campaign

Injustice – a film by Migrant Media

The Azelle Rodney Inquiry

The Jean Charles de Menezes Family Campaign

Justice for Habib ‘Paps’ Ullah

Facebook: Justice for Habib ‘Paps’ Ullah

Sean Rigg: Justice & Change Campaign

Facebook: Campaign for Justice for Smiley Culture

Facebook: Official Campaign 4 Justice 4 Kingsley Burrell

Facebook: Campaign 4 Justice 4 Demetre Fraser aka T.Dot

Other Black deaths in custody

Sign a petition on Deaths in Custody

Read an IRR News story: ‘Dangers of secret inquests’

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