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Race And Policing: Are We Any Better Than The States?

08/12/2010 16:13 | Updated 22 May 2015

I was planning to write about the X Factor's further descent into parody this week – was anyone else bothered by Louis Walsh's "You're like a little...Lenny Henry/Luther Vandross/Marvin Gaye" comments to Paije?

But then I read a story in the papers that seemed that little bit more important.

Glover's body was found in a burnt-out car several weeks after water breached the city's levees in 2005, leaving a wave of destruction from which the city is still recovering. It has taken five years to bring the case to trial, due reportedly to a culture of corruption and cover-up in the New Orleans police department.

One police officer has admitted shooting Glover; another of throwing flares into the car where he lay covered in blood. Prosecutors say the car was burned to hide the shooting.

The officers charged are just five of 20 police officers charged in the past few months over killings, assaults and the fabrication of evidence during Katrina. At least 10 people died at the hands of the police in the aftermath of the disaster, all of them African-American.

Before we reassure ourselves that all of this is a long way from home, it is worth remembering that deaths of black people (and others regarded as "police property") in the custody of the police are hardly unheard of on this side of the pond.

According to the campaign group Inquest, 125 of the 530 people who died in police custody between 1997 and 2007 were from black and minority ethnic groups. That's nearly a quarter of those who died in police custody – despite the fact that non-whites make up only 8 per cent of the UK population.

Clearly not all of these deaths were caused by foul play by police officers. But in a small and significant number, officers were found to be at fault.

Ten years before Henry Glover was shot and burned in New Orleans, Brian Douglas, a 33-year-old music and boxing promoter, was stopped by police on his way home in south London. One of the officers hit him over the head with a baton with "considerable force". He was then arrested and held in a cell for 12 hours before being taken to hospital with a fractured skull. He died five days later.

His sister Brenda Weinberg has campaigned passionately for the prosecution of the officers involved. Fifteen years later, she is still waiting. So are the families of Roger Sylvester, 30, who died after being restrained by several officers for 20 minutes, and Christopher Alder, 37, who died in 1998 after being left face-down on the floor of a police cell, apparently unconscious.

In all three cases, as in many others, the police were accused of not mounting a proper investigation, of mislaying vital evidence and feeding misinformation to the press. In two of the cases, the Crown Prosecution Service - the government body responsible for prosecuting criminal cases - decided there was "insufficient evidence" to prosecute the officers involved.

It has taken five years to bring those implicated in Glover's death to trial in the US, but thanks to civil rights legislation criminal proceedings are now taking place. In the UK, there appears to be an institutional unwillingness to even mount prosecutions of police officers in comparable circumstances, even where evidence seems overwhelming.

Which leads to the worrying question: who polices the police?

Laura Smith is a freelance journalist, writer and editor who has written for publications including The Guardian, The Independent, Marie Claire and the Evening Standard. www.laurasmith.org

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