Guide: Police Brutality in the UK
Updated: Feb 5
TW: This article contains graphic descriptions or extensive discussion of abuse and violence against Black people.
Over the past few years, the USA has been in the spotlight for police brutality against Black citizens. Outcries against the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of the US police flooded social media and led to peaceful Black Lives Matter protests across the globe.
For White people in the UK, it is easy to ascribe these blatant displays of racial discrimination to institutionalised racism only in America. A lot of discussions about institutional racism on social media and in more traditional forms of media focus on the US. But the UK is definitely not innocent. Police brutality is as much a British issue as it is an American one.
This guide takes a look at police brutality in the UK, how it's an example of institutional racism and why such behaviour is normalised (but definitely not normal!).
A Look at the Statistics
First, let’s take a look at the facts and figures of police brutality against Black people in the UK.
Black people make up 3.3% of the UK’s population, and yet account for 12% of police altercations in which force is used.
The Metropolitan Police use restraint on Black people five times as often as on their white counterparts.
People of Colour are also nearly twice as likely as White people to die either during or immediately after having contact with police.
As of March 2019, 93.0% of police officers in England and Wales are White, while just 1.3% are Black. This means that the workforce is a lot less diverse than the population of the UK.
The choke that officers used on George Floyd can also be used by officers in the UK.
The UK Police Force is Racist Too
More than any other organisation in the UK, the police have been persistently accused of racism and racial discrimination. In 2015, Runnymede published a new edition of their Perspective series, focusing on racism and policing in England and Wales. Runnymede is the UK’s leading thinktank on equality and race relations. This edition, Justice, Resistance and Solidarity, offers an insight into historic and contemporary police-based racial discrimination.
In this publication, one article outlines how ‘policing is an area of public policy where anti-discrimination law has been an abject failure’. Between 1948 and 1971, in what is known as the Windrush era, the British government actively encouraged people from the Caribbean Islands to live and work in the UK. As the Black British population increased so did the number of hate crimes which were committed by White citizens.
Introduced in 1965, the UK’s first Race Relations Act stated that overt racial discrimination was no longer legal in public spaces (but made no mention of shops and private properties). And who do you think was exempt from this new law? You guessed it – the police!
In fact, the police were free from the Race Relations Acts of 1968 and 1976, meaning that they were exempt from the first 35 years of anti-racism legislation. This essentially means that a central part of the British state, the part that is meant to serve and protect its citizens, had no duty to avoid racial discrimination or defend equality.
Historically, Black people have been over-policed and under protected. To this day we live in a society that is systematically tipped in the favour of White people. It was only in 2000 that an amendment in the law brought the police force under the scope of the 1976 Act. While this amendment can only be seen as a necessary step forward, there is little evidence to suggest that it has had much impact.
Know their Names
Unlike American police, the British police are not routinely armed. But George Floyd’s murder showed us that the police do not need guns to kill. In a 2020 article for Elle, Mark Townsend investigates the deaths of four Black men after being apprehended by the British police in 2017. In each of these arrests, the officer used a neck restraint similar to the one that killed George Floyd.
In East London, unarmed and unthreatening, Edson Da Costa was accosted by four police officers. A witness said that one officer had a knee on Da Costa’s neck for 8-10 minutes even though Da Costa lost consciousness after five minutes. Although it has never been made public, a bystander videoed Da Costa’s last moments. Townsend writes, ‘if ever released, it threatens to look grotesquely similar to the events in Minneapolis’.
A few months later, a teenager called Rashan Charles was restrained in a very similar manner. In live footage, a White police officer is seen to tackle the young boy to the floor of a shop. This time Charles did not regain consciousness after four minutes of being restrained by the police.
Nuno Cardoso, a student in Oxford, became unresponsive in the back of a police van and later died in hospital. White police officers allegedly struck Cardoso with a baton after he resisted arrest, one officer proceeded to turn off their body-cam. All officers involved were allowed to travel together after the incident, possibly conferring.
Darren Cumberbatch, a 32-year-old electrician, was arrested in Coventry. While he was restrained by the police, Cumberbatch was brutally tasered, punched 15 times and sprayed with an incapacitant substance. He later died in hospital.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of the lives taken by police brutality in the UK. In 1985, Cynthia Jarret died of a heart attack when the police entered her home after wrongly accusing her son of stealing a car. In 2011, Mark Duggan was shot by a police officer who believed Duggan was carrying a firearm, even though there was no forensic evidence to suggest that he held a gun. In 2019, Trevor Smith was shot in his bedroom by a police officer who was part of an intelligence-led operation. The list could go on...
So far, none of the officers involved in the deaths of the four young men in 2017 have been prosecuted. The neck restraint is still sanctioned in the UK, with latest advice dictating that officers can resort to its use only ‘if they need to do so’. Mark Duggan’s death was ruled as a ‘lawful killing’. In Trevor Smith’s inquest all officers are to be treated as witnesses, and no arrests have been made to date.
"The UK is institutionally racist at every level of the criminal justice system."
While the above accounts summarise the abuse that these people suffered at the hands of the police, it is important to remember that they were real people with family members who still have no justice for the loss of their loved ones. The UK is institutionally racist at every level of the criminal justice system. The police seem to act first and have the liberty to decide later.
Normalised, but not normal
Despite bringing the police under the scope of the 1976 Amendment, police-based racism is still rife in the UK; it is still taking Black lives. Racial discrimination and excessive force used by the police against Black citizens is normalised and excused by a cultural narrative that attaches violence to Black people. Underpinning capitalist ideological laws, this cultural narrative perceives Black people as naturally violent or dangerous.
In his interview with Owen Jones (which you can watch here), Akala explains that when a White person acts violently, there is always an explanation for their violence. However, when a Black person is violent, Blackness seems to be a perfectly suitable explanation for their violence. The whole idea about Black-on-Black crime is a product of this narrative.
Akala continues to explain that this cultural narrative is rooted in the history of colonialism. In order to advance Europe’s colonial agenda and legitimise their abominable actions, 19th
century pseudo-science perpetuated the myth that Black people were genetically predisposed to violence and inherently incapable of governing themselves.
See our guide on British Colonialism for more information.
Ideas about Blackness and criminality have continued to become intrinsically interlinked. In the 1980s, stop and search laws were introduced through which Black people were and still are disproportionally targeted.
This narrative is not restricted to the past. It has seeped its way into the present day and continues to be perpetuated through the often-reductive representations of People of Colour in the news, in movies and other forms of media.
White people recognise and are often outraged by the most prevalent types of racism, but are blind to its more subversive forms imbedded in the very fabric of society.
The UK is not innocent. Police brutality in the UK is only one example of how our society is systematically racist. It takes a lot more than a law change to reverse an age-old cultural narrative. Political and cultural representation needs to shift in order to alter attitudes towards People of Colour at the individual and institutional level.
For more guides and resources, head to our dedicated Racism, Islamophobia, and Antisemitism section.