OPINION
01/04/2021 09:02 BST

Richard Okorogheye’s Case Is Typical Of How Police Fail Black Families

Stories like Richard’s are the rule, not the exception for Black missing children and their families, writes Minority Matters’ Aisha Ahmed.

So many of us are praying for the safe return of missing student Richard Okorogheye. I hope the police take decisive action and exhaust every avenue to find Richard and return him home to his mother, where he belongs.

But in our experience at Minority Matters, where we campaign to protect young people against criminal exploitation, police take the disappearance of minority children and young people lightly – and act only if they face public scrutiny and pressure. They claim to be under-resourced when they need to investigate missing or exploited young people, yet I’ve seen them turn up in high numbers when it’s time to prosecute young people in court. 

The parents of these children not only have to deal with the fear for their missing loved ones, but also face hostile police who are reluctant to help. Some parents are not believed when they say that disappearing is out of character or their child is in danger, and some police say they won’t prioritise finding a child without evidence there’s a threat to their life.

We’ve heard of cases where police merely process them and tell parents to go home and wait until they hear back from their child, leaving the distraught parents to go out to look for their child everywhere, alone in the cold and the rain, and we’ve heard heartbreaking stories of parents spending day and night standing by the window waiting for their child to come home.

We’ve heard of cases where police merely process them and tell parents to go home and wait until they hear back from their child, leaving the distraught parents to go out to look for their child.

Often, parents will be directed to 101, the police number for non-emergencies. Imagine having your loved one missing and being charged for waiting to speak to not even an officer but an agent who can only take information and pass it on?

We’ve seen parents put on hold over an hour waiting to get through before giving up. Other parents who come to Minority Matters say they don’t want to report their child missing because police either will do nothing or that 101 is costing them too much money because of how often they have to call. 

It shouldn’t be this way. The consequences are devastating at best and lead to miscarriages of justice at their worst.

One culprit is the disconnect between police forces. A young person could be reported missing in London, but the police forces at hotspots where children are trafficked might be completely unaware. We’ve found this to be the case when we contacted one rural police force, trying to find a missing boy, and realised they didn’t even know that the boy had previously been reported missing in London and trafficked before to their area.

In cases like the above, where police suspect the young person is involved in county lines drug dealing, the police hold the missing in contempt, and they would rather see the children as perpetrators than accepting them as the victims they are. This treatment spills over to the parents. 

These are the realities that Black parents with missing children face. Too many arrive at the conclusion that it is up to them to find their missing son or daughter – the police either do little to nothing, are slow to take any action, or if they even do, their process leaves a lot to be desired. 

It’s important too to make clear this isn’t to say white victims don’t deserve this attention. I’m saying all victims should be entitled to sympathy and outrage on their behalf.

At Minority Matters, we have taken to the streets with concerned parents, trying to find information that would lead us to the missing person. We’ve helped parents put up posters, talk to people in areas where their young person frequented, identified and approached whole networks of young people asking for help. We’ve had to rely on our own community, to try and find out what is going on – and more importantly, why. 

I’m sure the lack of police resources have affected how forces prioritise all cases, including missing people. But the point here is that institutional racism existed before the cuts, and diminished resources have only worsened the situation for Black Britons.

It’s important too to make clear this isn’t to say white victims don’t deserve this attention. I’m saying all victims should be entitled to sympathy and outrage on their behalf. 

In our experience, stories like Richard’s are the rule, not the exception. The police will probably say they are doing all they can, give excuses and reason away their failings. But ultimately, for them to really make improvements they must first acknowledge the failures. They must meet with the people they have let down, and they must develop actionable plans to give equal treatment to all citizens, regardless of race. 

For young people like Richard, sensitivity training alone won’t cut it.

Aisha Ahmed is development manager at Minority Matters, a grassroots charity started to fight for equal opportunity for academic success and now campaigning to protect young people against criminal exploitation.