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10 January 2014

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.

By Stephen Bush

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.

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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. 

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