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 editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.