Over the past year, police brutality in the USA has become a global concern. The killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Grey triggered protests not just in their home states but worldwide, with a new campaign group “Black Lives Matter” emerging to protest the ongoing deaths at the hands of US police. The Oxford Union hosted a packed debate on whether the US is ‘institutionally racist’ earlier this year, and the deaths, protests and trials resulting from the killings have all made regular headline news.
What has received far less attention has been the continued deaths at the hands of UK state officials. In March of this year, the Institute for Race Relations published an in-depth report on 509 people of colour who died in suspicious circumstances between 1991 and 2014 whilst in the custody of police, prison or immigration officers. Their analysis of these deaths — which averaged almost one per fortnight over the period covered —showed that a large number occurred after excessive use of force by the authorities, and an even larger number involved a culpable lack of care. Perhaps even more damning, the report concluded that “lessons are not being learnt; people die in similar ways year on year”.
But the big difference that emerges from the US is the handling of the officers involved. Officers stood trial following all three of the big recent cases from the US — even if, infamously, they have all so far been found not guilty. In the 509 cases examine by the IRR, however, a mere 5 cases — less than 1% — led to prosecutions — with not a single conviction. This is despite inquests recording verdicts of unlawful killing in over a dozen cases. Indeed, of the thousands of deaths in custody that have occurred since the late 1960s (current levels are around 600 per year), only one single case — that of David Oluwale in 1969 — has resulted in the conviction of an officer.
One case which clearly illustrates the difficulties faced by families of the victims in their struggle for justice is that of Habib ‘Paps’ Ullah.
Habib and two of his friends were pulled over by police in High Wycombe on 3rd July 2008. Habib was peaceful and compliant with the police, who he allowed to search him. However, when he was asked to open his mouth, he turned his back on them. That was the trigger for a vicious assault. Without warning, one officer, DS Liles, punched him in the back with maximum force, at which point four officers set upon him. Over the course of the next ten minutes, Habib was subjected to further blows, knee strikes, a finger in his eye socket, the squeezing of his throat, and the full bodyweight of an officer on top of him whilst face down on the ground, along with a variety of ‘pain compliance’ techniques. At one stage, DS Liles shouted to his colleagues: “break his arm”. Witnesses were screaming at the officers that they were strangling him, with another witness describing it as like something from a horror film. By the end of the assault, Habib had lost consciousness, with officers noting that his arm dropped to the floor when released, and that his eyes were motionless when his eyelids pulled back. Nevertheless, the police waited a further ten minutes before calling an ambulance. Witnesses spoke of the police ‘standing around’; no CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was given to Habib, he was not put into a full recovery position, and his pulse was not taken: the officers all claimed that they believed Habib had been ‘faking it’. When an ambulance was finally called, the police gave the code B1, for a non-life threatening situation; by the time it arrived, witnesses — including the officers themselves — had confirmed Habib had been making very strange coughing sounds with his face turning first blue and then grey. Those sounds, it now seems clear, were almost certainly his death rattle. The small wrap of drugs which Habib had in his mouth had got lodged in his throat during the attack which, combined with likely ‘positional asphyxia’ caused by the restraint, had caused him to suffocate.