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Why I'm Investigating How Britons Die in Police Custody

There have been more than 1,500 deaths during, or immediately after, police contact in the UK. I wanted to find out why.

Photo by Yukkiko Matsuoka via

In the late 1960s, Nina Simone sat down with filmmaker Peter A Rodis to make a 22-minute documentary about her work. The short film is a collation of musical highlights shot between 1968 and 1969 and candid personal interviews with Simone, where she famously discusses the political role of music, art, and the artist.

"An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times," she said. "I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians… I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when everyday is a matter of survival, I don't think you can help but be involved. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?"


Almost 50 years later and her words still ring true, for me at least. That's why I'm working with director Troy James Aidoo to make 1500 and Counting, a documentary investigating the relatively untold story of police brutality in the UK. As a writer and poet, documenting the rather extraordinary events of my generation lays the foundation for what I create.

That impulse to make sense of the world led me to the story of Sheku Bayoh, who died at the hands of police in Scotland under circumstances that remain unclear, more than a year later. At the time, I still found myself astonished that black men were and are killed by police in the UK too—this wasn't just an American problem.

What I've learned so far has been ugly. Since 1990, according to research by British charity Inquest, over 1,500 people have died in police custody in the UK. A handful of cases have received unlawful killing verdicts but as of yet no officer has been prosecuted for any of these deaths.

In fact, the first, last, and only conviction of police officers in relation to a black man's death was in 1971, when two officers in Leeds were prosecuted for a series of assaults on David Oluwale, after another officer spoke up. Oluwale's body was discovered face down in the river Aire in 1969. The brutal story of this Nigerian immigrant being hounded by the police in the 1960s still resonates loudly today to those of us in Britain's ethnic-minority population.


When discussing the recent waves of Black Lives Matter protests in London, Birmingham, and the rest of the UK, Harmit Athwal—researcher at the Institute of Race Relations and co-editor of their groundbreaking 2015 report, Dying for Justice—said it was "incredibly interesting to see people campaigning on issues of police brutality in America," but that it was disappointing to note that "not the same numbers were on the streets for UK victims and their families. Police in the UK will kill people with their bare hands; in America they shoot you at a distance."

Sheku Bayoh's sister Kosna, speaking in Scottish parliament about her brother's death and injuries

This chilling realization resonated with me and reminded me of my feelings during the early stages of my research into the film. I was frustrated with the seeming apathy of people in Britain about police violence—in relation to the deaths of people of all ethnicities—and some people's complacency when it came to discussing the differences between the UK and the US. Police brutality kills here too—and not just people from BME (black, Asian, and minority ethnic) communities—but the main difference between British and American understandings of that racism comes down to it being institutionalized and insidious in the UK.

Victims are more likely to be killed behind closed doors as a result of officers using "undue force" and demonstrating a "culpable lack of care" than executed in the streets as one mobile phone video after another has shown us in the US. But was Mark Duggan not shot by police on the streets of Tottenham in August 2011? Was 27-year-old Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes not shot in a south London Tube station in July 2005? In April of the same year, 24-year-old Azelle Rodney was shot six times by police in north London.


In the last 25 years, of that startling 1,500 estimate for deaths in police custody, about one-third have come from BME communities, despite such communities making up only 14 percent of the British population. This disproportionate number of BME victims and the worrying lack of accountability and culpability of police officers has, for the most part, gone widely underreported in most mainstream media—most recently, in the case of 18-year-old Mzee Mohammed's death in Liverpool in July 2016.

As noted by the editors of Dying for Justice, "it is significant that the most important work on deaths in custody has been done by freelance journalists and independent writers and filmmakers"—those with supposedly less to lose, such as Diana Taylor, Tanika Gupta, Kester Aspden, and the Migrant Media documentary film-making group (most notably with the seminal works of Ken Fero).

Sheku Bayoh's mother, Aminata (left), and his sister Kadi Johnson. Photo courtesy of 1500 And Counting/ Troy James Aidoo

The conversation (or lack thereof) surrounding deaths at the hands of British police still has a long way to go. "Campaigns by people such as the Rigg family are committed to changing things," Athwal said, when we spoke. "The police use shocking restraint methods. Now a key issue is also deaths in prisons, overcrowding, targeting foreign nationals, and deportation. The levels of force used during deportations is astonishing," as in the case of Jimmy Mubenga, who died on a plane bound for Angola when restrained by officers in 2010.

But, as you'd expect, the issues are complex. "The reality is that deaths in policy custody doesn't represent the total picture," said Lee Jasper, co-chair of BARAC UK and a prominent if divisive voice in British race relations. "Suicides in jail, deaths in mental hospitals, and detention centers all need to be investigated. Post-Brexit Britain requires a robust debate around human rights for black and brown people."

Just as Nina said, as an artist and a black woman with a platform, I feel it's my duty to document the times I live in and the movements I am a part of. When 1500 and Counting finally sees the light of day, I hope that what Troy and I reveal adds to the robust debate that we so desperately need in Britain. We also hope more than anything else that it adds to a small canon of necessary work on a subject still so taboo that many in the mainstream, and the public sphere, choose to keep their heads in the sand.

Visit 1500 and Counting's website. Siana Bangura is a journalist, writer, and poet from London.

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