It's all the other police deaths that should really trouble our politicians

Almost a thousand people have died in police custody since 1990 in Britain, and only one police officer has faced any sort of professional sanction.

The Mark Duggan verdict divides people. It divides me. Part of me wants to say: if the jurors accepted, eight votes to two, that he had thrown his gun away, that he had no weapon, that he had got out of the car, how can they decide by the same margin that his killing was lawful?

But there’s another part of me that says: a killing doesn’t have to be just or right to be lawful. Mark Duggan was a convicted criminal. He was a member of a gang that terrorised people – most of whom, it has to be pointed out, were also black – and he went to considerable lengths to acquire a gun, either because he wanted to scare people or he wanted to shoot them. It’s perfectly reasonable to believe that one of the people he scared with that gun was the police officer who ended up shooting him.

And I don’t doubt that that second part of me is right. Mark Duggan was a dangerous gangster. He wanted a gun so he could frighten or murder people. Even a police officer with unimpeachable anti-racist credentials could have genuinely believed that their life was under threat.

The problem is that the first part of me simply doesn’t believe that there are police officers with unimpeachable anti-racist credentials. I know that they exist, but when I think of the police, I think of being stopped-and-searched, aged 15, on the Embankment in broad daylight with everyone looking at me, an experience as humiliating as if I had been stripped naked right there on the Strand. That’s the part of me that gets nervous when I see police officers at Highbury and Islington Station of an evening, or quickens my pace around the Palace of Westminster. That’s the part of me that fears, in the way I think that most black men in London do, what will be left of them are words like: he was running away, he fired first, he had a pre-existing condition.

That fear isn’t groundless; it is the result of lived experience. Mark Duggan wasn’t the only person to die after police contact in 2011; 32 other people did as well, 23 of them in police custody. To put that figure into an international context: when the US nonprofit Human Rights First estimated the number of deaths in US custody in Iraq during the first four years of the Iraq war, the annual toll was 25. And 2011 wasn’t even a particularly bad year for the British police.

One thousand, four hundred and seventy six people have died following police contact in Britain, and almost a thousand of them in police custody since 1990 in Britain, and, at the time of writing, only one police officer has faced any sort of professional sanction for any of those deaths: PC Simon Harwood, who was found not guilty of killing Iain Tomlinson in 2012.

Now it may be that none of those other one thousand, four hundred and seventy-five deaths had anything untoward about them, but that seems, to me at least, highly unlikely. Even if they were, it seems, to me at least, highly troubling that someone like Simon Harwood, who already had a rap sheet a mile long, could have been kicked out of one police force and allowed to walk into another, and that not one of his superior officers was called to account for him being there in the first place. If a teacher smacked a pupil in Nuneaton and walked into a teaching job in Lambeth there would be a national outcry: but Simon Harwood is held up as a bad apple, and we all move on.

Did Officer V53 truly believe Mark Duggan to be armed when he fired the fatal shot? That’s a question without a clear answer. Was Mark Duggan a dangerous criminal? That’s a question with a fairly obvious one. But the question that should trouble our politicians isn’t about the death of Mark Duggan. It’s about the other 32. 

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley speaks to reporters outside The Royal Courts of Justice on January 8, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.