New analysis of official data reveals that black people are seven times more likely to die than white people following restraint by police. This racial disproportionality is higher than previously made public and was unearthed by Inquest, a charity that helps bereaved families after contact with the police or state.
In a report released on Monday called “I Can’t Breathe: Race, Death and British Policing”, Inquest alleges that the British system for investigating deaths after contact with the police fails black families and ignores racism as a potential factor. The report says no officer has ever been found to have acted in a racist or discriminatory way following the death of a black person after contact with the police.
The government as recently as 2021 claimed there was no evidence black people were dying at a higher rate than white people after police contact. The Inquest report concludes that there were two sets of official data into which restraint deaths could be placed. Until now, the total deaths following restraint had not been made public, the report says, nor had the racial disproportionality figures for the totals been calculated and made public.
One set of official data covered deaths in custody where restraint was involved, but other fatalities were placed in a different category called “other”, covering deaths following contact with police where the person was technically not in police custody – that is under arrest or in a cell.
The report says that among those who died but are missing from the official count of deaths following restraint was the former Premier League footballer Dalian Atkinson, who was killed after an officer fired an electric stun gun into him for 33 seconds, kicked him twice in the head while he was on the ground – with such force that the imprint of his laces was left on Atkinson’s forehead – then rested his boot on the dying man’s head. Atkinson was never technically under arrest and thus not technically in custody. The officer became the first in over three decades to be convicted of manslaughter for force used as part of their duties.
The key part of the Inquest report says: “From 2012/13 to 2020/21, there have been 119 deaths involving restraint recorded by the IOPC [Independent Office for Police Conduct] ‘in or following police custody’ or recorded as ‘other deaths following police contact’. Of these 23 were of Black people, 86 were White, five were Asian and four were mixed race. Assuming constant demographic profiles over the period considered, Black people are 6.4 times more likely to die than the proportion of the population they represent. For white people, the comparable figure is just 0.84. Using these figures, Black people are seven times more likely to die than white people when restraint was involved.”
In 2021 the Home Office said: “Data also does not suggest that black men are more likely to die in custody in cases where use of force or restraint is present.”
The Inquest report’s title – “I Can’t Breathe” – uses the words said by George Floyd in the US as he was murdered in May 2020 by a police officer who knelt on his neck for nine minutes. The outrage after Floyd’s death sparked mass protests in Britain and led police here to admit to continued failings and to pledge reforms.
A race action plan released by the National Police Chiefs Council in 2022 said: “We use our powers on Black people disproportionately often compared with White people. Last year, we stopped and searched Black people at a rate that was seven times higher than it was for White people … force was five times higher … we discharged or drew Taser on Black people at a rate that was six times higher … only 3.5% of the population is Black.”
The Metropolitan police assistant commissioner, Matt Twist, who speaks for the NPCC on self-defence and restraint, told The Guardian: “The use of force to restrain violent and potentially dangerous people is sometimes necessary to protect the public, officers, and, on occasion, the individual from serious harm. Strict guidelines ensure that force is only used when it is proportionate, lawful and necessary, and awareness of the risks of restraint and consistency in training has continued to improve. Policing is committed to working with communities, our partners, and oversight and scrutiny bodies to prevent any death or serious injury following police contact. There have been significant changes made in the last 10 years, and our program of improvement in terms of public and personal safety training continues.”
The president of the National Black Police Association, Andy George, expressed his shock at the new figures and suggested that stereotyping could be a factor in the disproportionate number of Black people who die during police restraint. He stated, “The fact Black people are much more likely to die while being restrained is further evidence that policing is still failing to protect Black people. The lack of a diverse workforce means officers and staff are less likely to have personal connections to Black communities, which leads to them having a biased view of people they come into contact with. This can impact decision making, with officers more likely to view Black people as bigger, stronger and more dangerous due to their lack of exposure to Black communities…”
The Inquest charity has been supporting those who have lost loved ones after contact with the police for over 40 years, and its experience with these cases has helped it obtain the new data. Deborah Coles, its executive director, criticised the government and the IOPC for ignoring the extent of racial disproportionality in deaths in their own official data and failing to publish these stark figures. According to her, “They have chosen to focus on a limited dataset, which obscures the reality for Black people. This has excluded numerous contentious and high-profile cases from the official statistics. Rendering these figures and this reality invisible perpetuates the problem and frustrates the opportunities for change.”
In response to the report, the IOPC, which is criticised in it, stated, “Evidence of disproportionality in the use of police powers has long been a concern which impacts on confidence in policing, particularly in Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. That’s why we launched a program of work in 2020 to explore, challenge and address issues of race discrimination in policing in order to drive real change in police policies and practice. We have also significantly boosted our expertise and capacity to investigate discrimination and provided practical guidance to police forces to do the same.” The report’s title, “I Can’t Breathe,” references the words spoken by George Floyd in the US as he was murdered by a police officer who knelt on his neck for nine minutes in May 2020. Following Floyd’s death, there were mass protests in Britain, and the police here admitted to continued failings and pledged reforms. However, the new data suggests that there is still a long way to go to prevent further unnecessary deaths during police restraint, particularly among Black people.
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