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Deaths after police contact: why is no one accountable?

SERIOUS QUESTIONS: MP Diane Abbott, centre, with relatives of Rashan Charles and Edson Da Costa who died after contact with the police

MORE THAN 500 people from the black community have died after contact with the police or in state custody since 1990. Rashan Charles became the latest victim.

Despite these shocking figures no one has been prosecuted. Prime Minister Theresa May promised an independent review in 2015. Since then nothing has happened. Our people continue to die. Another year, another tragedy.

The black community has witnessed a disproportionate number of deaths in police or state custody over the years – Darren Cumberbatch, Roger Sylvester, Shiji Lapite, Sean Rigg, Joy Gardner, Olaseni Lewis and Smiley Culture are just some of the names that come to mind.

Last month, Rashan Charles became the latest addition to that list.

GONE: Rashan Charles died on July 22 after contact with a police officer


Charles, 20, died after being restrained by police officers in Dalston, east London. Just a few weeks earlier Edson Da Costa, 25, from East Ham, also died after contact with the police. Their fathers, Esa Charles and Ginario Da Costa, have vowed to pursue justice, not just for their sons, but for all those who have died in police custody.

Families have been calling for transparency and justice on deaths in custody for several decades now. It was for exactly this reason that in 2015, then-home secretary – and now our Prime Minister – Theresa May commissioned an independent review into deaths in police custody, including racial disproportionality. The review’s report was due for publication last year. Until very recently, the Government’s website about this independent review stated the report will be published “in the summer of 2016”.

Speaking to The Voice, Debra Coles, of Inquest, which campaigns on deaths in custody, said it was her understanding that the report would come out some time in September.

Delays in its publication make it harder for May to achieve her stated aim – to build trust and transparency on an issue that has been a source of great pain to Britain's black community over the past 30 years. The unexplained and long delay in publishing the review casts serious doubt on the Government's willingness to deal directly with the concerns of black families like those of who are mourning the loss of a son, brother or father. These are families united by the fact that they have lost relatives - mostly young black men - while they were in a police setting or under section in an NHS hospital.

WHY ARE WE WAITING?: Prime Minister Theresa May has failed to deliver a report on deaths in custody, despite promises to do so

Their sense of loss is compounded by the fact that they expected, rightly so, that the lives of their beloved relatives were safe in a controlled environment with trained professionals. Yet their efforts to find out exactly what happened and who is accountable have been met with seeming indifference; aside from the intervention of individual politicians such as Diane Abbott who spoke at a protest over the deaths of Charles and Da Costa and spent time with the grieving families.

Instead, they are struggling to deal with the fact that no one seems to be responsible for their family member’s death.

The families of Rashan Charles and Edson Da Costa feel angry and that anger is justified. Too often, the establishment closes ranks, putting corporate reputations above the need to be seen as fair, compassionate and transparent in a bid to give grieving families much needed closure. It’s no wonder that the black community has little faith in politicians or the criminal justice system. Anger over the disproportionate numbers of black people dying in police custody is the sharpest and most vivid representation of that lack of trust. That is why the government has a moral duty to acknowledge this grievance and take a lead on this issue.


A clear indication on when the report of the independent review will be published would be a good first step. It is simply not acceptable or right that black families should have to sit down with their children and explain the harsh reality that people who look like them can die at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them.

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