Historic Black deaths in custody debate

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It is of little surprise to Black families who have lost loved ones in police custody, that the historic Parliamentary debate on the issue received zero coverage in the National media.

For most media outlets it was virtually a non issue that so many Black men and a few women could arrive in police custody fit and healthy and come out in a body bag, with no one being held to account, ever. In sharp contrast, the trails and tribulations of Nigella Lawson, her ex husband Charles Saatchi have dominated both front and inside pages for the last week or so.

But what Charles Walker, a Conservative MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire did by initiating this debate in our Parliament is a great credit to him and our democracy. It was an impassioned and heart-felt speech, which he delivered after hearing the grief and anger of the mothers and other family members who died whilst in the care of the state. He said:

For the past 30 years since I became an adult I have been aware of grieving black families on the steps of courts or inquests flashing across my TV screens.

I've seen the faces of the young men flash across my TV screen; and up until this point I have chosen to do nothing.

Now I am standing up to do something. So I ask myself the question that I may want to ask others, why is it that for 25, 30 years I did nothing.

Until I answer that question satisfactorily I will not cast aspersions on others."

Although African Caribbean only account for three per cent of the population they make up more than 20 per cent of those who died in custody.

Walker suggested a number of reforms including insuring that affected families do not have to jump through hoops to get legal aid, stopping face-down restraint and decreasing the time it takes for inquests to occur.

The MP also addressed "unauthorised briefing of the press", which he said "trashes" the reputation of young men who have died in custody and can impact on the outcome of inquests.He said:

Can you imagine how that affects a grieving family, the weaker party in all this, to see the reputation of their son or grandson, their cousin or nephew destroyed and they have no right of reply?"

BMH UK director Matilda MacAttram has referred to the debate as "historic". She said:

We have seen the issue of black deaths in custody consistently sidelined over past 30 years under the guise of mainstreaming an issue.

This has meant that the disproportionate numbers of people from the UK's African Caribbean communities who continue to lose their lives while in the care of the state, remains unaddressed."

She added:

I personally welcome this move as it is part of the work that BMH UK has been doing for a number of years in this arena

Given the track record we have seen on this issue we are clear that unless there is a specific focus on the way Black Britons are treated when detained in custody, it is unlikely to change in the next 30 years."

Just last month another Black man died in police custody after being detained and arrested by police under the mental health laws. Leon Briggs, 39-year old father of two died on November 4th.

Simon Woolley

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