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Campaign to boost custody visitors

SECOND IN COMMAND: Deputy Birmingham City Councillor Yvonne Mosquito

A CAMPAIGN in the West Midlands to encourage more people from African and Caribbean backgrounds to step forward as custody visitors is gaining ground after the community held a public forum to discuss the issue.

There has been a rise in the number of inquiries made to the West Midlands Police & Crime Commissioner’s office following a straight-talking public debate where the panel included Bob Jones, the West Midlands newly appointed Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) and his deputy Birmingham City Councillor Yvonne Mosquito.

Currently, African and Caribbean people make up only 30 per cent of the total number of volunteers trained to make unannounced visits at custody suites across the region and check on the welfare of people in police custody.

The debate, organised by United in Building Legacy and Birmingham Empowerment Forum at Lozells Methodist Church and chaired by Desmond Jaddoo, was at times very heated. The meeting discussed the emotive issue of the disproportionate number of deaths in custody among black people.

Birmingham solicitor Errol Robinson, who has dealt with many high profile cases, including the death in custody of Mikey Powell in 2003, said the issue continued to be ‘the greatest scandal.’

He recalled how a jury at an inquest held six years after Powell’s death, revealed he had died from ‘positional asphyxia; after being restrained by police.

“This was a damning narrative verdict, which revealed the inhumane and degrading treatment of Mikey Powell,” said Robinson.

But PCC Bob Jones said a number of changes in the way custody was organised and new safeguards put in place had improved the situation.

He explained that following arrest, people with mental illness were now taken to a hospital or clinical environment where they could receive therapy, rather than being put in a police cell.

He added that CCTV and audio facilities had been rolled out into cell blocks so the interaction between inmates and the custody sergeants could be monitored. He said: “All this has resulted in a significant reduction of deaths in police custody.”

While his deputy Cllr Mosquito stressed it was crucial that those who signed up to be custody visitors should reflect the backgrounds of those living in cell blocks, so they understood the cultural dynamics of those in prison.

Dr Derrick Campbell, who has recently joined the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) as a commissioner, said a major part of his role was to build public confidence in the police complaints system.

When challenged that the IPCC was often seen as a ‘second home’ for police officers, he explained that out of 357 who work there, only 33 were actually former officers.

But many at the meeting felt it was important for people in the black community to talk to their own young people and explain to them what rights they had and how to handle themselves if they came into contact with police.

While others felt that some officers within the force needed to clean up their act in the way they dealt with young black men and needed to be educated on how to behave.

Desmond Jaddoo added: “As a community we need to be less reactionary and realise that collectively we can do things. We must get involved and hold those in power to account.

“As citizens we have the right to become trained custody visitors to monitor what is going on.”

Jaddoo added that since the forum, held on March 7, many at the meeting had applied to become custody visitors.

For further details on this contact Paul Norton, community engagement officer at the West Midlands Office for the Police & Crime Commissioner on 0121 626 5685.

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