The Prevalence of Police Brutality in Black Communities, and the Misconception of the UK’s Innocence

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Sarah Reed. Sheku Bayoh. Mark Duggan. Joy Gardner. Cherry Groce. David Oluwale. Each person who had their lives cut short, dreams left unfulfilled, loved ones left without goodbyes – all diminished to a list of over 500 names – now nothing more than ink on paper. As we mourn the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of unlawful police officers in the state of Minneapolis, U.S.A, supporters of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have reached a boiling point of political dissent and outrage, at the institutional racism present at the foundation of the justice system, specifically in America. The tragedy prompts activists and concerned citizens to bring together people of all races in solidarity, and rightly so – ‘Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are’ (Benjamin Franklin). A common phrase is, ‘Thankfully we don’t live in America,’ but who is to say that the systematic discrimination against black people is exclusive and isolated to just one nation? The souls behind the aforementioned names, are high profile black victims of injustice by the BRITISH POLICE FORCE. 

Why are we so myopic with regards to recognising the presence of police brutality in the UK, and its particular prevalence in the black community? What legislation has previously been put in place in an attempt to prevent these unjust acts?

[1] A report by Inquest, which is a British charity investigating deaths that took place when victims were in custody, over 1500 people have died in, or as a result of police custody in the UK since 1990, with a large proportion of this figure being coloured (BAME) individuals, as discovered by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) – more than 500. No police officer has been prosecuted despite several deaths resulting from the use of undue/excessive force, as well as a ‘culpable lack of care’. This figure doubles to 3000 deaths when considering data from 1969, a mere 51 years ago.

In 2016, Sarah Reed died at 32 in her cell in London’s Holloway prison, while she was awaiting trial after having suffered prior failings by the state, following reports of sexual assault during her detention in October 2012, and being physically brutalised by a police officer in November 2012, as evidenced by a video recording. [2] In 1993, Joy Gardner died from ‘hypoxic brain damage’ (oxygen starvation), which was later understood, and largely agreed upon by pathologists, to have happened because of the gag used by police in the altercation that took place. The instance involved two PCs and a Home Office Immigration Department official, who struggled to send her back to Jamaica as a result of Gardner being an undocumented immigrant. In 2015, Sheku Bayoh who had a disagreement with an officer, died after being arrested in Fife, Scotland, having been handcuffed, pepper-sprayed, put in leg restraints and pinned to the ground by four officers, which resulted in positional asphyxia leading to his death. The action of a black man being pinned to the ground with undue force by white police officers is, unfortunately, an unwelcome familiarity to us now.

A case notoriously known for sheer brutality, police neglect and gross misconduct, is that of David Oluwale, 1969, who was the first black person to have died in UK police custody, according to records. This is the only case we know of, in which officers are held responsible for the loss of life in police custody. David Oluwale suffered from being viciously beaten with truncheons in Leeds and then kicked into the River Aire. Furthermore, his numb body was retrieved two weeks later from the river.

Following Oluwale’s death and the immense injuries and paralysis imposed upon Cherry Groce by police, came the infuriated riots of Brixton in the 1980s, and the 2011 London riots following Duggan’s death, eerily mirroring those which we see in Minneapolis today. It raises the question of the global progress we think we have made in terms of racism, as opposed to the cold truth which is unveiled upon us – we have undergone a stagnation in the number of reforms, that we are in desperate need of.

Nonetheless, legislation and reformations did occur to an extent in Britain. [3] In 1976, an amended Race Relations Act was introduced. However, police forces were exempt from this until the 1990s. Prior to the riots in the 80s, the ‘Sus’ law was regularly exercised, which allowed police to stop and search anyone they suspected; this power was abused to perpetuate brutality and unprovoked attacks against black males, from which racial profiling stems. 

Lord Scarman’s report on the events in Brixton came about in November, 1981, which marked the end of the ‘Sus’ law, a time when similar disturbances were taking place in other English cities. The riots were representative of the political climate in the whole country, not just Brixton, and the disparity of opportunities and the treatment of black people as opposed to white people, was clearly evident. In his report it was acknowledged there was “no doubt (that) racial disadvantage was a fact of current British life”, although he mentioned that “institutional racism” did not exist in the Metropolitan police force. Notably, Lord Macpherson came to the opposite conclusion in his report, 18 years after this, which was made on the murder of a black teenager named Stephen Lawrence. 

Lord Scarman recommended that ‘racially prejudiced’ behaviour should be made an offence in an adapted Police Discipline Code, which could lead to a dismissal. His report gave rise to the Police Complaints Authority, which was replaced by the Independent Office of Police Conduct in 2018, consultative groups and evolved approaches to recruitment and training for the police. The IOPC is currently responsible for handling complaints made against police forces in England and Wales. However, in similar fashion to the delay that was present in charging George Floyd’s killer, police protection laws make it more difficult for prosecutors to build up a successful case.

The effectiveness of said reponses by the law and authorities is arguable. [4] Figures show that:

  • In 2017-18, the Met used force 62,000 times with over a third of these incidents involving black people.
  •  As of the 1st of April, 2017, police forces have been required to keep a detailed record of any time force that is used by an officer. The data shows a black person in London is four times more likely to have force used against them by a Met Police officer, than a white person. 
  • Based on population figures, the use of force was equivalent to one attack for every 50 black people in Greater London, and one attack for every 200 white people.

In the UK, a black person is less likely to be shot dead during an altercation with the police in the streets, than in the U.S.A. However, black people are more likely to be held with savage forcefulness, and die slowly, in torturous fashion, as a result of misconduct on the part of the police. Police brutality in America is definitely more ubiquitous and a key contemporary issue regarding racism, but this does not mean to say that the subtle, and somewhat surreptitious discrimination in the UK justice system is non existent – the abolition of a primordial law and the rise of a support system to fight injustices put in place by the law, cannot evoke political change single-handedly, if the people of the state do not change their attitudes and do not stop creating these injustices in the first place. 


References

  1. Siana Bangura, “We Need To Talk About Police Brutality In The U.K.”, https://www.thefader.com/2016/03/29/police-brutality-uk-essay, March 2016
  2. Terry Kirby, “Doubts delay inquiry into Joy Gardner’s death”, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/doubts-delay-inquiry-into-joy-gardners-death-1466994.html, December 1993
  3. Cindi John, “The legacy of the Brixton riots”, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4854556.stm, April 2006
  4. Sam Francis, “Met Police ‘use force more often’ against black people”, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-44214748, May 2018

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