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Charges over Chris Kaba death barely scratch the surface of police killings

Nearly 2,000 people died "during or following" contact with police in the UK since 1990. Only 10 charges of manslaughter or murder have ever been brought forward, resulting in just one conviction. And the killings are just the tip of the iceberg of institutional racism. 

September 23 2023, 12.48pm

Joy Gardner, Ibrahima Sey, David Oluwale, Darren Cumberbatch, Cherry Groce, Olaseni ‘Seni’ Lewis, Smiley Culture, Cynthia Jarrett, Kingsley Burrell, Chris Kaba. 

These are but a handful of the 1,871 people who have died in England and Wales "during or following police contact" since 1990. For all the lives taken, only 10 charges of murder or manslaughter had been brought against officers. Only one was convicted:  PC Benjamin Monk, convicted for manslaughter five years after killing Dalian Atkinson in 2016. 

“During or following police contact” is a neatly packaged label offered by the Independent Office for Police Conduct.  “Following” police contact could mean being restrained by multiple officers, laid face down, hands cuffed, breathless, beaten and sprayed at close range with military-grade CS gas. This extraordinarily disproportionate use of force is not a hypothetical scenario: it is the one that claimed the life of Edson Da Costa in 2018. It was ruled as ‘misadventure.’ 

“During” police contact is more immediate: say, a covert operation designed to target Black communities, where a hard-stop results in the discharging of a firearm that takes your life in one fell swoop - think Mark Duggan, 2011.

If convicted, the defendant will be the first officer to be imprisoned for murder committed on duty in over 30 years - perhaps ever.

Just over a decade later, in Streatham, Chris Kaba’s life would also be claimed by another police-issue firearm. Tailed by an unmarked police car, no lights, no sirens; the officer opened fire into Kaba's car and ended his life. 

It took over a year for murder charges to be issued. That they are being pressed at all is tremendously significant for two reasons: One, these charges undoubtedly would never have been filed had it not been for the relentless campaigning of Chris’ friends and family; and two -  if convicted, the defendant will be the first officer to be imprisoned for murder (not manslaughter) committed on duty in over 30 years - perhaps ever.

And while it over a year for the charges to be issued, it only took 24 hours for the defendant, officer NX121, to be out on bail.  NX121 is not a meaningless ordering of letters and numbers. It is a protection order that preserves the anonymity of an officer of the law accused of murder. Five letters to indicate the hierarchy of safety under this same system. It is not uncommon for officers to have their identities protected, their jobs secured and their lives relatively unaffected by consequences that never come.

Many Britons have a way of looking across the Atlantic transfixed by stories of an America marred by a racism that could never reach ‘our’ shores. Distance, after all, can lessen the perceived urgency or feeling of social, ethical and communal responsibility to demand change - out of sight, out of mind. But Black communities here stare defiantly at a society we inherited – knowing that it is these very shores that perfected and exported a maleficent, deep-rooted racism of their own.

Despite stark data revealing the racial disproportionality of Black lives taken by police, not a single accountability process substantially considers the role of race in these murders.

From Leeds to Cardiff, Telford to London, over 100 Black people have died at the hands of police in England and Wales since 1990 - on one occasion, four lives were stolen in five horrific weeks. Not a single death should occur at the hands of police. However, these statistics reveal that a disproportionately high number of Black lives are claimed by the institution in England and Wales.

Racism within UK policing has deeply entrenched roots that intimately intertwine with the judicial system, our healthcare systems, education systems and more. As such, the abuse of legislation has often powered a revolving door of harassment, violence and the  over-policing of Black communities.

This can be traced back to the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which gave constables and other officials the right to detain anyone they find “suspicious” - five years before the creation of the Met. Fast forward to 2020, police were given heightened powers of arrest due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost immediately, there was a sudden spike in the number of stop-and-searches of Black boys and men in the capital - 22,000 to be exact - were carried out between March and May 2020. Keeping the tradition alive and well. 

 In 2021, the United Nations human rights office called on the UK – as well as other member states – to eradicate this long, fraught culture of impunity within the police force. Their report examining racial justice, specifically cited the murder of Kevin Clarke in 2018, who died after use of excessive restraint resulting in asphyxiation. He told officers “I can’t breathe… I’m going to die.” This call was blithely ignored.  

Domestic calls to reform the police often follow in the wake of tragic, avoidable, abuses of power at the helm of officers who abuse the power granted to them by the state. In this case, likely to exercise racist ideologies, with permanent, fatal consequences. According to INQUEST, despite stark data revealing the racial disproportionality of Black lives taken by police, not a single accountability process substantially considers the role of race in these murders.

Although some might hold out hope that the Casey Report will usher positive changes in the police - much like the hopes staked on the Macpherson report (1999), which found the Metropolitan police to be institutionally racist - many of us will not hold out hope that reform can ever truly, meaningfully and sustainably be made within a system so deeply entrenched in oppression. History urges us to look into radical, alternative possibilities in order for us to live in a society underpinned by community, equity and care.

Rest in power.


Sofia Akel

Sofia Akel is an award-winning cultural historian, creative consultant, writer, host and lecturer specialising in Black British history. She is also the founder of the non-profit, Free Books Campaign. Her work has been featured in national and international press, including BBC 1Xtra, Channel 4 News and ITV News. Sofia also lends her talent to documentary film, TV, audio and music videos with credits including; Creative Archival Consultant (Dirt in the Diamond by Jords, Tribeca Film Festival 2023 select), Race Equity Specialist (Teardrops by Kano, nominated for a UKMVA), Researcher and Casting Consultant. Her debut book exploring Black British history will be released in 2025.