Families of Black people who die following police contact cannot get accountability for racism from a system that is not “fit for purpose”, a new report from INQUEST has revealed.
In ‘I can’t breathe’: Race, death and British Policing, INQUEST investigated the processes, procedures and evidence base of the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and the coronial system to examine how accountability for racism is delivered.
This has been a long-standing problem in Britain, but concerns were heightened in the wake of the George Floyd murder in 2020.
INQUEST found a system which works against delivering accountability, that appeared blind to the evidence and where racial discrimination was not addressed meaningfully.
The detailed report makes the following issues clear for the first time:
Official data never before made public shows that Black people are seven times more likely to die than White people following the use of restraint by police.
No death of a Black person following police custody or contact has led to officers being disciplined for racism, at a conduct or criminal level.
Despite the stark racial disproportionality evidenced in data, none of the accountability processes effectively or substantially consider the potential role of racism in deaths.
Britain’s leading human rights lawyers told INQUEST that the role of racism is not adequately scrutinised by post-death investigation system. The report features new data and analysis. It includes powerful interviews with expert human rights lawyers who are members of the INQUEST Lawyers Group, and five bereaved family members who have been through the legal processes.
The question of whether racism contributed to the treatment of a loved one is invariably in the minds of Black families, but not one most felt they could raise. In the aftermath of these deaths, the bereaved families’ testimonies evidenced the police’s attempts to demonise them and their loved ones, as they sought to minimise possible wrongdoing.
Patterns arising from deaths evidence racist stereotypes of Black men from police, equating them with dangerousness and criminality. Officers were often quick to escalate the use of force, particularly against those in mental health crisis.
The potential role that racism might have had in the police’s treatment of Black men is entirely absent from the official version of these deaths. Racism is not being addressed or challenged by the police watchdog (IOPC), coroner’s or the Crown Prosecution Service.
Police officers and forces are resistant to facing up to the reality of institutional racism. Lawyers report that they are often uncooperative when questioned and simply deny their actions are influenced by racism. The police watchdog is failing to challenge the police.
INQUEST’s analysis of official data from the IOPC found that the categorisation of certain deaths is obscuring the extent of racial disproportionality by excluding many of the most contentious restraint-related deaths of Black men.
The Home Office has therefore claimed (2021) that Black men are not more likely to die in custody cases where use of force or restraint is present. INQUEST's analysis of data on all police restraint related cases shows that Black people are in fact seven times more likely to die than White people when restraint is a feature.
Using INQUEST data from casework and monitoring between 2011 and 2021, 52 Black people died in or following police custody and contact. Of the total number of deaths recorded 13% were Black people, who are therefore four times more likely to die than the proportion of the population they represent.
Deaths of Black men continue at disproportionately high levels, with the latest cases such as Chris Kaba, Oladeji Omishore, and Godrick Osei serving as a reminder of the urgency of the action needed.
Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said: “The evidence is stark. Deeply rooted patterns of systemic racism, across police forces and across time, are resulting in disproportionate numbers of deaths of Black men following the use of restraint."
Investigation and oversight bodies are failing to examine the potential role of race and racism in deaths involving police. This renders racism invisible in the official narratives and prevents justice, accountability and change.
Now is a time of intense scrutiny on policing, yet politicians from across the political spectrum are not responding to the evidence. Institutional racism is embedded in police culture and practice which equates Black men with dangerousness and criminality.
As well as making a range of recommendations on addressing institutional racism within policing and improving post death investigation processes, INQUEST are calling for transformative change to prevent future deaths and harms.
The Government must decrease reliance on policing and investment in the criminal justice system. Public funding and policy must prioritise welfare, health, housing, education, youth services and social care to tackle the root causes of these issues.”
The report features in depth interviews with five bereaved families who have been through the post death processes. Their insights included the following.
Wayne McDonald, brother of Adrian McDonald, said: “George Floyd said the same thing as Adrian: ‘I can't breathe’. When Adrian says, ‘I can't breathe’, the officer's told him ‘well, you're talking aren't you?’. The whole culture has to change.”
Marcia Rigg, sister of Sean Rigg, said: “I hear the officers on the witness stand and the pattern is that the police are scared of Black men. ‘He was so strong, we were sweating, he was resisting’ they said. It’s nonsense. We’re not stronger than anybody else. We're not madder than anybody else. We're just trying to breathe, because somebody is on your neck.”
Aji Lewis, mother of Seni Lewis, said: “They treated Seni in such an appalling way. No empathy. No thought. And the same language that comes up at inquests where Black people are concerned. They spew out the same thing, ‘big, black and dangerous’.”
Margaret Briggs, mother of Leon Briggs, said: “It was discrimination all the way. What the police perceived Leon to be, Leon wasn't. He wasn't aggressive. He wasn't out there to hurt anyone. He needed help.”
Carla Cumberbatch, sister of Darren Cumberbatch, said: “Darren died because he was a Black man. He wasn't acting violently or threateningly. He was scared. It was a medical emergency. Instead of calling an ambulance - they called for backup."