In the days after the August 2011 riots, few disagreed that something had to change. With five lives lost and an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £100 million, scenes of burning buildings, looting and uncontrolled violence shook the nation.
Though the finger of blame couldn’t be rested upon a single cause, the shock to the average citizen’s system opened up a nationwide dialogue on the direction British society was taking. Impassioned pleas from community leaders flooded the nations television screens along with assurances from David Cameron that government would re-establish the nation’s lost sense of security. The diagnosis was far from simple. A clamor of voices from all sections of society put forward a host of theories, poverty, unemployment and social exclusion being amongst the many.
As those who indulged in the anarchy were rounded up, the wheels of justice leapt into full speed with surprising agility. The rioters were dealt with swiftly and severely but as their fates were announced in the tabloids, it was revealed that they represented a broad cross-section of society with no obvious common thread. The quest to intellectualize the riots, in which five people lost their lives, continued unabated with David Cameron stating that ’this was not political protest or a riot about protest or about politics, it was common or garden thieving, robbing and looting and we don’t need an inquiry to tell us that.” The questions would be left unanswered and the incident that sparked the riots became a secondary factor.
Mark Duggan was under the surveillance of Scotland Yard’s Trident Team, a specialist unit set up to tackle gun crime within the black community. On August 5, officers followed Duggan, who was travelling as a passenger in a minicab in North London. Exactly what happened next is lost between conflicting accounts but during the arrest, shots were fired and father of four Mark Duggan was killed.
By the following morning, both mainstream media and social networking sites were awash with news of Duggan's death. The commentry, coming from Facebook and Blackberry Messenger, began with messages of condolence, but as the hours passed, rumors of an assassination were rife. On the streets of Tottenham, North London, the anger was growing. Around three hundred protestors gathered outside a police station in the High Road area, demanding "justice and transparency." The protest turned ugly and thus ensued four days of the worst violence Great Britain has seen for a generation, with waves of anger fanning out from the capital to other major cities.
Early reports from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) suggested that an exchange of fire had taken place but a bullet lodged in the radio of an officer at the scene, was later confirmed to be a police issue bullet. Forensic analysis of a firearm found at the scene showed no evidence that Mark Duggan was carrying the gun at the time he was shot by officers.
Whilst David Cameron was certain the riots were merely an opportunity for criminal activity, those who took part in the riots tell a different story. Of 270 rioters, who took part in ‘Reading The Riots’ a study by The Guardian and The London School of Economics, 85 percent cited policing as an important factor in the cause of the riots. Rioters claimed that racial abuse, physical abuse and fabrication of evidence were among the issues that fuelled their anger towards the police.
In the months following Duggan’s death, the Metropolitan police received strong criticism over their handling of this case. Their initial report that Mark Duggan had shot at officers had to be amended by the IPCC, shortly after its release, adding to the confusion and casting doubt over whether a fair and accurate picture would emerge from the chaos. The IPCC mission statement states that the body will “make sure that complaints against the police in England and Wales are dealt with effectively. It sets standards for the way the police handle complaints and, when something has gone wrong, it helps the police learn lessons and improve the way it works.” But since its inception seven years ago, the commission has been repeatedly accused of failing in its duty to police the police.
In an attempt to reassure the public, a Community Reference Group (CRG) was created to monitor the IPCC’s handling of the Mark Duggan case but two of its three members quit, one of them claiming that he saw no possibility of the IPCC being able to meet the criteria that the CRG required of them. Stafford Scott, who once acted as an independent advisor to The Met’s Operation Trident said that he believed the investigation was flawed, claiming that members had been told by the commissioner that three police officers had given statements saying that they had witnessed a sergeant throwing away the gun that was later found feet away from Mark Duggan’s body.
Scott was told later that the allegation could not be supported as no statements had been given. He also spoke of possible contamination of forensic evidence after the minicab Duggan had been travelling was removed from the crime scene. The IPCC insist the car had been sealed then removed to a specialist forensic facility before being returned to the scene.
Responding to the departure of the two CRG members, IPCC Commissioner Rachel Cerfontyne made the following statement.
"During the early stages of a complex investigation emerging evidence can be confusing and is certainly incomplete. The investigative process rigorously tests all evidence both forensically and through witnesses where possible until we achieve the best possible complete picture of what happened. It is for this reason, amongst others that we are extremely cautious about what we put into the public domain before an investigation is finished. The IPCC reference group has been given information on a confidential basis as part of our efforts to gain community confidence through scrutiny, challenge and dialogue.
Part of the reference group's remit is to advise the Commissioner on the key issues for the community, raising concerns on their behalf. The time to pass judgment on our investigation is when it is complete and the full evidence will be publicly tested. As the Commissioner I have every confidence that this investigation is thorough, robust and independent."
The confident reaction of the IPCC will do little to placate a growing number of people who believe that the police are beyond reproach. Since 1998, 333 people have died either in or shortly after leaving police custody. As yet, no police officer has ever been prosecuted, even when recommendations for prosecution have been made. The last successful prosecution of a police officer in a custodial death case came in 1971.
In 1969, David Oluwale, a homeless Nigerian immigrant was found dead in the River Aire, Yorkshire. It was revealed that in the months leading up to his death, David had been systematically harassed and abused by police officers. A bus driver witnessed two police officers chasing a man towards the same river that David’s body was pulled from two weeks later. The judge ordered that the manslaughter charge be dropped and Sergeant Ken Kitching and Inspector Geoff Elerker were found guilty of assault, Kitching received a sentence of 27 months imprisonment whilst Elerker was sentenced to three years.
Since then, the fight for justice by bereaved family members has invariably ended without a criminal conviction. In 1998, 37 year old Christopher Alder was arrested for a breach of the peace. On his arrival at the police station, the former paratrooper was found to be unconscious. Video tape of the last eleven minutes of his life clearly shows him lying face down in a pool of blood whilst officers stand chatting besides him.
More recently, police have received criticism regarding a drugs raid that took place on March 15, during which David Emmanuel, also known as pop star Smiley Culture, is allegedly to have fatally stabbed himself. Though the IPCC’s investigations found the raid to be flawed and called for an overhaul of the way the Metropolitan Police plan and carry out future drug seizures, the commission could find no reason to pursue criminal charges against any of the four officers present.
As his family and the public await the outcome of the IPCC’s investigation into Mark Duggan’s death, research suggests that four out of five rioters believe that there could be a repeat of the violent protests of August. Their voices are joined by those of community leaders countrywide who say that nothing has been done to prevent a similar situation arising in the future. As the painstaking process continues the question of the IPCC’s ability to provide a transparent and fair inquiry into the events of August 4, remains.
Jude Freeman writes from London.