By Jenny Bourne
The family and friends of Sandra Bland have questions. They want to know how on earth this young and healthy black woman, who was pulled over by police for a minor traffic violation in Texas on July 10th, ended up dead in a Waller County cell from asphyxiation three days later.
The officials imply she took her own life by hanging. Her supporters say that's not credible.There has been an outcry in the US over this suspicious death in custody - just one of the many recent deaths of African Americans in custody or on the streets at the hands of trigger-happy local police officers. According to a survey by the Guardian, 664 people have died in police custody in the US this year, of which 174 have been black. They are four times more likely than whites to be custody death victims.
These recent US deaths and the subsequent community protests have made the headlines in the UK, too. This is somewhat ironic since the stories of black people who die in custody here rarely make the news at all. For over forty years, families of black people (usually men) who died in the custody of our police, prisons or detention system have been asking the same question as Bland's family has: 'How on earth did this happen?' Our law enforcement, supposedly independent watchdogs, the Crown Prosecution Service and inquests rarely have an answer.
A recent report from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), Dying for Justice, revealed that 509 black, Asian and minority ethnic people (BAME) have died in custody in suspicious circumstances since 1991. Of these, 137 (27%) were in police custody.
The IRR is not comparing black and white death rates, but there is evidence to show that because of stereotyping - for example expectations that black people will be irrational, inordinately strong or angry – they face a disproportionate level of force.
Of the 137 BAME deaths in police custody, 126 were male; 11 were female. Seventy-eight were black or black British and 31 were Asian or Asian British. Sixty-one per cent of all such deaths occurred in the London area. Fifty-one people died while in a police station or cell, 49 died on the street; and 17 in their homes.
In terms of contributory factors to deaths in police custody; only 61 people had actually been arrested before their death. Nine had been detained under the Mental Health Act, 34 died following a police chase and six died after a stop and search. The use of force contributed to the deaths of 39 people. Twenty-nine deaths were linked to the use of some sort of physical restraint. At least six deaths involved shooting whilst another 11 were linked to the use of non-lethal weapons such as batons and CS spray.
Though the overall figures can in no way be compared to those of the US, we can compare the distrust which has grown up in black communities because of the closing of ranks, secrecy and lack of accountability which so often follows a death. Families, desperate to know how a loved one died, find themselves up against all those agencies they thought were there to help them.
They have meagre resources. Often they only have the support of the group Inquest and the community network United Families and Friends Campaign. They go through years and years of bureaucratic and legal struggle to get to the truth of a death, let alone have someone held responsible for it. At every stage - from the police's handling of the PR around an incident, to the slowness of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), to the imbalance of the coroner's court and the reluctance of the Crown Prosecution Service – there are reasons for a family to lose faith in British justice. In fact, of the 509 deaths examined by IRR, there have been just ten unlawful killing verdicts, five prosecutions and not one conviction at all.
Home secretary Theresa May recently announced an inquiry into deaths in police custody. She was moved so to do by hearing how the failures of the criminal justice system compounded the grief and difficult experiences of the families of Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis – young, vulnerable men who died following restraint in Brixton in 2008 and Croydon in 2010 respectively. The personnel and terms of references of such an inquiry are yet to be announced, but it certainly has its work cut out.
Figures for deaths in custody are up. The IPCC figures for 2014/15 show that deaths in police custody in 2014/15 (excluding suicides and traffic incidents) increased to 17, from 11 the previous year. Ten were after restraint by officers and virtually all had links to drugs, alcohol or mental health issues.
Until we get concrete action on black deaths in custody, tragedies like that of Sandra Bland, Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis will continue, here as in the US.
Jenny Bourne is editor of Race & Class, and coedited Dying for Justice. She has also carried out research at the Institute of Race Relations into various aspects of racism. Dying for Justice edited by Harmit Athwal and Jenny Bourne (Institute of Race Relations, 2015) is available here.
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