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the British police: getting away with murder since 1969

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Open Democracy

827 people have died during or following police contact since 2004. Families have struggled hard for justice, encountering multiple failures and police collusion from the IPCC. Why is police accountability failing in this most serious of issues?

Christopher Alder, a trainee computer programmer and former British Army paratrooper who had served in the Falklands War and Northern Ireland, died face down, handcuffed, with his trousers around his ankles on the floor of a police station in Hull in April 1998. Alder, a 37-year-old black man, had been assaulted outside a night club and taken to a local hospital, where he was arrested by officers for an alleged breach of the peace following complaints about his behaviour from nursing staff.

While fit enough to get into a police van by himself, CCTV footage shows that upon arrival at the police station, Alder was unconscious when dragged from the van and placed on the floor of the custody suite. Officers treated Alder like an animal, completely neglecting him while he lay dying on the floor. Officers calmly chatted among themselves, one of them suggesting he was faking illness. Eleven minutes later, when officers finally realised he had stopped breathing, attempts to resuscitate him came too late. It was later revealed that CCTV had captured the officers making monkey noises at the police station that night. Alder died on the scene.

A familiar pattern

Following his death, Alder’s sister Janet launched a long struggle for justice, one that continues to this day. In 2000 a coroner’s jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing, and in 2002 five police officers went on trial accused of manslaughter and misconduct in public office. All were cleared on the orders of the judge. An internal disciplinary inquiry by Humberside Police cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. In 2006, an Independent Police Complaints Commission report concluded that four of the officers present in the custody suite when Alder died were guilty of the "most serious neglect of duty", but the officers responsible walked free. Successive Humberside Police chiefs have failed to act on the conduct of the officers involved.

Alder’s death, the police cover-up, the acquittal of officers involved, and the family’s subsequent struggle for truth and justice is a pattern familiar to many families in Britain – so exquisitely documented in the 1999 film injustice . The last time a police officer was successfully prosecuted for the death of somebody in custody was in 1969, when the two Leeds Police officers responsible for the death of David Oluwale, the first black man to die in police custody in the UK, were found guilty of assault and sentenced to a mere few months in prison. There have been over 1,000 further deaths in custody since. However there has not been a single successful prosecution against any police officer involved in these deaths – despite several verdicts of unlawful killing, most recently in the case of Azelle Rodney. Crucially, these verdicts were handed down only after years of tireless campaigning and painstaking legal challenges by the families of those who lost their lives in custody, many of which are affiliated to the United Families and Friends Campaign.

Who polices the police?

Whenever there is a death in custody, the police have to call in the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The statutory obligation of the IPCC is to secure and maintain public confidence in the system of complaining against the police. Time and again, however, the organisation has shown itself not to be on the side of the complainant, but on the side of the officers it is supposed to investigate.

The IPCC, which over 2012/13 had a budget of £32.5 million and around 400 staff, has proven to be both toothless and biased towards police officers. Whilst it claims to treat the place where a suspicious death in custody has occurred like a crime scene, this is rarely the case. It cannot compel officers to give evidence, and it has historically been reluctant to act with suspicion towards officers involved in custody deaths. 80 per cent of senior investigators within the IPCC are ex-police officers. Since its formation in 2004, 827 people have died during or following police contact. Not a single police officer has been convicted in relation to any of these deaths.
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