Written by:
Sophia Purdy-Moore

History repeating: British policing and Black communities

Read time:
5 minutes

History repeating: British policing and Black communities

In a personal response to the recent Casey Review, the Runnymede Trust’s Sophia Purdy-Moore says Black communities are tired and traumatised by the repeated failure to tackle institutional racism in British policing.

Earlier this month, the Casey Review – launched following the horrifying kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard – found the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic. It echoed the Macpherson Report, which, 24 years earlier, declared that the force’s investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was ‘marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership’.

Decades of reviews and reports have reached the same conclusions about the Met and made the same recommendations. But there has been no institutional change. 

‘The experiences of bereaved families are marginalised’ 

Today, on 1 April, we remember Christopher Alder, who died in a pool of his own blood on the custody suite floor of Queen's Gardens Police Station on 1 April 1998. 25 years later, his family is still fighting for truth and accountability.

For 24 years, the United Families & Friends Campaign (UFFC) has marched in London to remember and demand justice for the hundreds of people killed at the hands of the police, in prisons, in immigration detention, and in psychiatric custody in the UK. 

Their names include: David Oluwale (1969), Cynthia Jarrett (1985), Joy Gardner (1993), Ibrahim Sey (1996), Christopher Alder (1998), Roger Sylvester (1999), Mikey Powell (2003), Paul Coker, Azelle Rodney (both 2005), Sean Rigg (2008), Olaseni Lewis (2010), Smiley Culture, Kingsley Burrell, Mark Duggan (all 2011), Adrian McDonald (2014), Sheku Bayoh (2015), Leroy Medford, Edson Da Costa, Darren Cumberbatch, Nuno Cardoso (all 2017), Kevin Clarke (2018), Oladeji Omishore and Chris Kaba (both 2022). 

This shameful list goes on and on. At the UFFC’s annual rally and procession, bereaved families share stories about the lives of their lost sons, mothers, uncles, friends and neighbours. They also describe their untimely deaths, which resulted from officers’ use of lethal force or gross negligence. 

The families speak of being stuck in limbo, unable to grieve due to ongoing battles to secure independent inquiries, justice campaigns being surveilled and infiltrated by police, and investigations marred by institutional lies and misinformation. Meanwhile, the Casey Review’s exclusion of the UFFC’s evidence speaks to the ways in which bereaved families’ experiences are minimised and marginalised. 

‘An uneven web of grief’

On 5 September 2022, 24-year-old Chris Kaba became the 1,833rd person to be killed in police custody or otherwise following police contact in England and Wales since 1990. Six months later, I still can’t shake the sight and sound of his family at the first protest, just days after a Met officer shot and killed their loved one. 

His mother’s cries reverberating around Westminster, her face crumpled in anguish, body bent over as if in physical pain. The resolved countenance of his cousin Jefferson, who has given up a teaching career to pursue a long, difficult battle for truth and accountability. Mourning friends and neighbours, along with hundreds of strangers, extending love and solidarity to Chris’ fiancée and then-unborn child. An uneven web of grief, reflecting the immense harm police violence inflicts on families and communities. 

I’ll never forget the wide-eyed little girl who looked up at me the following week, while Lee Lawrence recounted his childhood memory of police shooting and paralysing his mother, Cherry Groce, in 1985. As Lee highlighted, his mother died in 2011, the same year Mark Duggan was shot and 'lawfully' killed by a Met officer. 

The little girl was tightly clutching the hand of a stony-faced man who had lived through this painful history. It was another Saturday, when they should have been out playing, or buying groceries. But instead they were outside New Scotland Yard asking how many more generations have to suffer at the hands of police before we see change?

‘Police routinely and disproportionately target Black children’

Children and young people were front and centre of the March 2022 protest following revelations about the horrific strip search of 15-year-old Child Q at her Hackney school. Again, we didn’t need the Children’s Commissioner’s analysis to tell us that this wasn’t an isolated incident. Or that police routinely and disproportionately target Black children with humiliating ‘strippys’. 

While community elders recounted 1980s campaigns to remove police from Hackney schools, children shared their day-to-day experiences of police violence and harassment. Of being stopped and searched on their way home from school hundreds of times. Of officers making offensive comments to children in school uniform or violating them in the back of police vans, in their homes and on the streets. 

Children and young people recounted these degrading and dehumanising experiences while standing by the entrance of Stoke Newington Police Station, a physical and symbolic site of police violence and racial trauma. 

They were just feet away from where ​​21-year-old Colin Roach died in 1983, slumped in the police station foyer. Where 19-year-old Trevor Monerville emerged from custody with unaccounted for life-changing brain injuries in 1987. And where protesters gathered in 2017 after 20-year-old Rashan Charles died following restraint by a police officer.

In this context, calls to increase the police presence in our schools and communities are indefensible. Yet this is what Casey’s Review recommends. 

Meanwhile, following the recent devastating death of 21-year-old student police officer Anugrah Abraham, who took his own life after experiencing bullying and institutional racism during his time with the West Yorkshire Police, further calls for police diversity initiatives are insulting and dangerous. 

For generations, police forces across the UK have inflicted irreparable damage on working-class communities of colour with impunity. The root issue has never been about a lack of trust. Increasing our communities’ interactions with inherently harmful and violent institutions is no way to create safety. 

‘A living history of collective resistance’

Our communities’ hopes for safety and progress have never existed in the state’s empty promises for reform. While our children and young people inherit the pain and trauma, they also inherit a rich, living history of collective resistance. 

This longstanding tradition endures in the work of Sisters Uncut and local police monitoring groups, which galvanise people to intervene and defend community members from police stops and searches, arrests and brutality. 

It exists in the networks of care and fugitive spaces created by groups such as 4FRONT, Kids of Colour, No More Exclusions and Rise.365. These are spaces where children and young people can feel safe, where their joy and creativity is nurtured, and where they are supported to advocate for themselves and their communities. 

And it lives on in the work of Cradle, Healing Justice London, and other collectives, movements and initiatives which are developing tools to address harm and violence in ways that facilitate healing, accountability, and transformative justice. 

At a time when the UK government is seeking to further expand the scope and scale of policing, we must build and sustain these community-led infrastructures of care and resistance, and pass them on to the next generation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust

Photo © James Eades/Unsplash

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