A death in custody only matters when it’s a cop

This article discusses racist police violence and deaths in custody.

As readers are doubtlessly aware: in the early hours of Friday morning a police officer was shot and killed in Croydon custody centre. While the details surrounding the incident are still unclear, cops and their right wing cheerleaders are already using it as an opportunity to demand greater police powers as well as harsher punishments for those who allegedly do them harm. Indeed, one retired officer, former Detective Chief Inspector Chris Phillips, has sought to blame the incident on critics of the systematic racist violence known as stop-and-search. Asked about how someone could enter the custody centre while armed, Phillips said: “I think police officers are probably less likely to search people now with all the furore that goes on”.

Despite the fact that searches following arrest are – in both a legal and practical sense – distinct from the practice of stop-and-search, Phillips isn’t the only person attempting to draw this illogical – but politically useful – connection:

There is nothing particularly surprising about this – time and again, the police and the political right have shown they will exploit any opportunity for gain, all the while attacking their opponents for disrespectfully ‘politicising’ events. Nonetheless, it is seems important to state that the (degree of) outrage about the Croydon shooting shows us very clearly which lives matter in this country.

The fact is that since 1990, over 1700 people have died following contact with the police, many of whom were killed in custody suites just like the one in Croydon (Source: INQUEST). Sean Rigg; Ricky Bishop; Christopher Alder, Leon Patterson – these are but some of the names of the hundreds that have been murdered in British police stations.

Unsurprisingly, there are sickening, racist disparities lurking beneath this headline figure. Data collected by the charity INQUEST shows that:

  • The proportion of BAME deaths in custody where restraint is a feature is over two times greater than it is in other deaths in custody.
  • The proportion of BAME deaths in custody where use of force is a feature is over two times greater than it is in other deaths in custody.
  • The proportion of BAME deaths in custody where mental health-related issues are a feature is nearly two times greater than it is in other deaths in custody.

But this history of brutality and murder is rarely spoken of in this country. Police violence is treated as if it were a peculiarly American phenomenon, and domestic deaths in custody almost never make it onto the front pages of national newspapers or result in angry calls for justice from political leaders. Instead, these deaths are ignored and forgotten, with the officers responsible receiving – at most – minor reprimands or encouraged to quietly retire (since 1970, not a single police officer has been successfully prosecuted for manslaughter or murder in relation to a death in custody).

Without the tireless work of grieving families – and the campaigns they have started – these deaths, these names, these lives would have been lost to the annals of history, like so much custody suite CCTV footage. In this context, we must recognise that the tumultuous outcry over the killing of one officer in a Croydon police station is predicated on a murderous indifference to the routine racist violence of the state.

For more information about deaths in custody:

  • The United Friends and Families Campaign is a campaigning coalition of those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody, supports others in similar situations. Every year they hold a rally to remember those who have died in custody and to demand justice for their families. This year it will take place in Central London on Saturday October 31st.
  • INQUEST is charity providing expertise on state related deaths and their investigation to bereaved people, lawyers, advice and support agencies, the media and parliamentarians.
  • Injustice – Ken Fero’s groundbreaking film on deaths in custody.
  • “Rest in Power” – 4front Project’s feature on deaths in custody in London


Carl Spender

Photo Credit: UFFC