A death that has become a personal matter

When asked how she would go about improving the Metropolitan Police, Doreen Lawrence replied: "Get rid of every single officer and start all over again." She had reached the end of her tether in this whole business and was unable to see a single redeeming feature in the entire Metropolitan Police.

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than young Roger Sylvester fell foul of Tottenham police. He is now dead. The facts are rather patchy at the moment. One version is that the young man was, to use a Jamaican turn of phrase, "not so righted" - meaning he was mentally disturbed. He seemed to have had a bad turn, and found himself naked at the front door of a house in the street where he lived. He appeared energetic and full of life. The police were called, they got hold of him and within a short space of time, minutes even, he was fighting for his life. Within a week young Sylvester was stone cold dead. Some people have speculated about a neck lock, because others, black and white, have suffered that fate, but there is no evidence.

It is an awful business. I know the Sylvester family very well: I recognised Rupert, his father, when the family was being interviewed on the television. He sat in the background, motionless and silent.

I had met the family 24 years ago when a schoolboy, Cliff McDaniel, a friend of the Sylvester kids, had been arrested, roughed up by the Hornsey police and charged with assault. At the time the family ran a supplementary school to assist black children who were disadvantaged in the education system in the borough of Haringey. The Black Parent Movement was formed to campaign for Cliff's free-dom. We met at Rupert's brother's home in Finsbury Park, week after week. In fact the supplementary school was named after Roger Sylvester's aunt, Albertina Sylvester.

I say all of this in order to show that the deceased would have insisted on his rights, however anxious his state of mind. The Sylvesters are stalwarts, alert and fiercely defensive about the rights of black people.

I cannot remember the deceased. He must have been a tiny tot then, or not even conceived at that point. But I take his death very personally. Another black death in police custody. It has to stop. And now I am forced to ask, is there something wrong with the water in north London? Readers will remember that a young man was seen on fire in Edmonton two years ago. Michael Menson was his name. He told the police and anyone else who would listen that he had been set alight by racists. The police, without a scrap of evidence, decided he had committed suicide.

Before eventually dying, Menson was in the hospital for two weeks, sitting up, doing crossword puzzles, reading the newspaper. But the police officer in charge of the inquiry did not take a statement from him. Case closed. Menson died.

We know now that his original statement was correct and a re-investigation of the murder is under way. We are told that Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve is in charge of the investigation and arrests are due shortly.

Grieve is, to all intents and purposes, as fine a detective as ever trod the pavements. He has had good results in some murder cases in Brixton where others have failed. His appointment as chief investigator in murder cases involving blacks was a major attempt to set things right.

The Metropolitan Police has got some 26,000 men and women police officers and I do not think we can get rid of them all and start again. There already exists an active campaign to put things right and I have supported this publicly.

So I have earned the right to say in this column that I will pursue young Sylvester's death, asking no quarter and giving none until justice is done.

It is a personal matter.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.