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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.