Until you fight, change never happens
By Harmit Athwal IRR
originally published : 17 May 2006
In a church in Piccadilly last week, a small group of families and friends of those who have died in police custody gathered at a press conference, supported by the Bishop of Southwark, to speak about their experiences and to launch a new leaflet for the United Families & Friends Campaign (UFFC).
The UFFC is a coalition of those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody, supports others in similar situations. Established in 1997 initially as a network of black families, over later years the group expanded to include the families and friends of people from varied ethnicities who have also died in custody.
The coalition includes the families of: Leon Patterson (died in police custody in 1992), Roger Sylvester (died after being restrained by police in 1999), David (Rocky) Bennett (died in psychiatric custody in 1998), Harry Stanley (shot dead by police officers in 1999) and Sarah Campbell (died in Styal prison in 2003) and many others.
At the press conference, Arlington Trotman of the Churches Commission for Racial Justice (CCRJ) commented:
“Deaths in custody and the way that the victims are handled by the state is a tragedy. The [families] not knowing for years and years how their loved ones died and the poor treatment of families during that process.”
He also called for transparency in the criminal justice system and for its workers to stand back and take a look at the suffering of the families, particularly those from black and minority ethnic communities. For him, Christian principles meant extending concern and support to the families of the UFFC.
The anguish of the families was exemplified by Patricia Coker, whose 32-year-old son, Paul, died in Plumstead police station on 6 August 2005, just two hours after being arrested. She told the conference: “Paul was our beloved son and brother, he was a wonderful young man on the verge of a new beginning. His friends have described him to me as a ‘determined, courageous and unique friend’. He was the centre of our family and his smile lit up a room.
“Paul is missed so dreadfully. On 6 August, Paul was allowed to die… We have no faith in the current system. It needs radical reform. The majority of the public turn a blind eye to most of these deaths in custody. The government doesn’t pay a lot of attention to things that don’t win votes… I believe 100 per cent his life could have been saved.
“In joining the UFFC we have received a lot of support, they have helped us to get the strength to continue. If you look at history, until you fight for change, it never happens.
“This joint campaign is a step forward. Our fight for justice is not just for Paul but also for all the others who have died in custody… When I first heard about Paul’s death I felt betrayed by the state… The government has to wake up to the fact that there are atrocities, and I purposely call them atrocities, happening in prisons and police stations. Justice is the real truth and the real truth is that we will continue to fight for justice it may take another 2,000 years but we are going to get it.”
Brenda Weinberg, (then Chair of the United Families & Friends Campaign) and the sister of Brian Douglas, who died after being hit with a long-handled baton by police offices in Clapham and spending days on a life support machine, told the meeting; “It’s eleven years this week since Brian’s death. Brian is missed. He will always be missed. You don’t know the joy his smile gave to me. But he could be your brother…
“It’s been hard and it doesn’t get any easier. I made a vow to Brian on his deathbed that we would fight for justice… Why doesn’t the system work for us? No one is prosecuted or disciplined. The prison, police and psychiatric services have a duty of care and every time a life is taken they have failed.”
The UFFC demands that:
- Prison deaths be subject to a system of properly funded investigation that is completely independent of the Prison Service;
- Officers involved in custody deaths be suspended until investigations are completed;
- Prosecutions should automatically follow ‘unlawful killing’ verdicts;
- Police forces be made accountable to the communities they serve;
- Legal Aid and full disclosure of information is available to the relatives of victims;
- Officers responsible for deaths should face criminal charges, even if retired.