Policing In Hackney 1945-1984

Published by Karia Press and RSFC in 1989

Copyright Roach Family Support Committee, 1988

313 pages

Foreword

The terms of reference of this Independent Committee of Inquiry into the death of Colin Roach are clearly set out in the Introduction. Broadly speaking, the purpose of the exercise was to clarify the circumstances in which Colin Roach died in Stoke Newington police station on the night of the 12 January 1983. The nature of the events leading up to this event and its possible causes were the subject of an inquest.

In effect what the police in Stoke Newington station appeared to have assumed, without adequate evidence, from the outset; what the Coroner recommended to his jury as the most ‘plausible’ account; and what the Home Secretary has since invited the Roach family and the community to accept is the following account of the events of that night: that a young Black man, who was not wanted in any way by the police, late one night, walked into a police station unknown to him, entered the foyer, took from a shoulder bag (which was not large enough to hold a weapon), an old shot-gun, put it into his mouth and, without a word to anyone, blew his head off — “You may think on the facts you heard that this is the only possible verdict. . .” the Coroner told his jury. You may think so. On the other hand, you may not. You may assume, as a very large number of unprejudiced people have assumed that there is something extremely unlikely, not to say ‘fishy’, about such a story. It is open to doubt, for example, whether any Home Secretary in his right mind would calmly and quietly acquiesce in such an implausible story as an adequate explanation of the death of his own son in similar circumstances.

That event in itself was sufficient ground for calling an independent inquiry into being. However, the death of Colin Roach did not take place in a vacuum. It happened in a place, in a community, in a context which has its own history. This history is part and parcel of ‘the Colin Roach story’. Stoke Newington police station has a notoriously poor reputation in relation to the policing of the Black community and the handling of legitimate grievances and protests in the Hackney area. It is not a reputation which engenders confidence amongst the great majority of the local community who have been concerned about the suspicious circumstances in which Colin Roach died.

The Report has carefully examined this background history and presented the evidence which substantiate these public perceptions. It is worth reminding ourselves as the Report does, that this was by no means the first time in which Black people had died or been injured, in suspicious circumstances, in police stations. It is not the first time in which the subsequent accounts of deaths and injuries in custody, offered by the police, were in direct contradiction with those offered by the families and friends of the deceased or injured people.

Anyone concerned to improve relations between the local police and the Black community or anxious to restore the trust on which we are told ‘policing with consent’ depends would have thought it their plain duty to go out of their way to clear up in the public mind the last shred of doubt or ambiguity concerning the behaviour of the police on an occasion like this. No such view was taken then, or since, by the powers that be.

Against that background, the Roach Family Support Committee quite rightly decided that Colin Roach’s death had to be examined and analysed in the context of the general problems of policing the Black community in Hackney and against the background of the long-standing and unresolved series of complaints which have arisen over the years about how Black people are treated by Stoke Newington police station in particular. That evidence, which has been the subject of a good deal of speculation on previous occasions, is now systematically set out and documented here.

The Report is well aware that this is not an isolated story. It could be repeated in any inner-city area with a significant Black population in Britain today. This, then, was the thinking behind the decision to set up an independent Inquiry and explains why the terms of reference drawn up as they were. The way the Inquiry set about its task and the evidence it saw and heard are set out fully in the Report. No attempt has been made to cover over or ‘resolve’ contradictions which arise from that evidence. They are, of course, pointed to and underlined, since they effectively undermine the confidence and certainty which, in subsequent years, has accreted around the quite unplausible definition of what occurred advanced by the inquest and the press.

Can definitive answers be given, on the basis of this Report, to the questions which led to its being written in the first place? The Inquiry does not commit itself to an alternative explanation of how Colin Roach died. What it clearly and incontrovertibly shows is that he could not have died in the way the police and the inquest say he did. The Report does not say or suggest, for example, that Colin Roach was shot by the police in their own station. But it does show convincingly that he did not shoot himself with a gun which he carried into the station: which is what the police and the inquest asked us to believe.

Was Colin Roach shot by someone else, in or outside the foyer of the station? The Report does not say definitively that he was because it does not know. However, it does remind us — as the inquest did not — that this is not quite so implausible a story as it appears at first. For weeks preceding the event, Colin Roach did both talk and act as if in fear of being ‘got at’ by someone. Indeed, he gave this as his reason for entering Stoke Newington police station at all, at 11 o’clock one evening, when there was — and still is — no apparent other reason for his doing so, “Someone’s going to get me and I want to get in there to be safe…” Colin told his friend, moments before entering the station. Who was going to ‘get him’ and why, the Report is not in a position to say.

But the incontrovertible fact is, that someone did ‘get to him’. The Report brings to light the reason why this was a plausible explanation for Colin to offer, given what had happened to him earlier in prison. The police are not in a position to challenge this argument, says the Report, because they never investigated it. From the first to last, the police behaved as if the ‘fact’ that Colin Roach’s death was a suicide was a foregone conclusion. The police certainly advanced an account of what they said or thought happened. But they conducted no investigation.

If Colin Roach shot himself, why did his body fall in the way in which it did? And why did it and the objects in contact with it appear to move around and change position, when no one is supposed to have touched the body? The Report cannot answer these disturbing questions either, but at least it is prepared to ask them. No one else was prepared to do so then, or at the inquest and no one has been willing to do so since. Indeed, far from the burden of proof lying with the police and the inquest, the very legitimate desire of the Roach family to find out what really happened and to have answers to these awkward and unresolved questions has been consistently treated by the police, the court, the Home Office and the press as nothing more than an unjustified and illegitimate slur on the good name of the local police.

In our view, any unbiased and objective person reading what is written here must conclude that contrary to every-thing which has been officially put about, nobody has the slightest idea why and how a young Black man lost his life in the foyer of one of the most controversial police stations in London. Further, that steps have been consistently blocked which might have led to these matters being systematically and satisfactorily inquired into. Why this should have been so is not for the Committee to say. But that it is so is clear. And the fact that it is so is a prima facie case for extreme public disquiet, not simply in Hackney or in the Black community but in the society at large.

The reader may also conclude that the current form and conduct of inquests leaves a great deal to be desired. The criticisms of current practice in inquest courts, which has been mounting in recent years, are now very convincing. Coroner’s inquests were never designed or intended to be, and cannot function as a substitute for an independent public inquiry into matters of this kind which affect public confidence in the expectation of justice under the rule of law from the courts and the police. Nor in such circumstances can the police continue to investigate and ‘clear’ themselves when it is their own practices and procedures which are in question. The practice of a succession of Home Secretaries to refuse public inquiries on the grounds that the inquest was, in effect, such an inquiry is, to put it frankly, a dodge and a deceit which convinces no one, least of all the families and individuals involved.

I believe that an unbiased reader will also conclude that relations between the police and the local Black community in Hackney have deteriorated to such an abysmal level that anyone in office with responsibility for the policing of London under the rule of law (and that is the responsibility of the Home Secretary) must immediately institute a public inquiry, irrespective of the circumstances surrounding Colin Roach’s death. Whether the Government of the day will take that view is another matter. The present Government seems to believe that the ‘rule of law’ (which obliges the state itself to be bound and constrained by the law) is the same as ‘law and order’ (which is nothing but a convenient political catch-phrase meaning that the police and the courts should support the state, whatever it does, and protect it against any inconvenience).

The ordinary people who demonstrated outside of Stoke Newington police station were exercising their civil rights under the ‘rule of law’. The brutal treatment they received at the hands of the police, who appear to regard civil rights as a matter of legitimate amusement was ‘law and order’ in action. Far from being the same, the two are diametrically opposed, as the underlying argument in the second half of this Report clearly demonstrates.

The fact is that inner-city boroughs like Hackney, where large numbers of Black people live, are places in which the state itself, and administrations and authorities of various kinds, constantly intervene, always in the interest of influencing what happens on the ground in the direction which suits them, but rarely in order to strengthen justice and equality for the ordinary citizens who live in these harassed communities — especially if they also have the ‘misfortune’ to be Black. That is the underlying ‘message’ of this Report. It is the message which anyone who has been attentive to what has been happening between Black people and the police in communities like this up and down the country in the past seven years will not fail to have grasped. As the Report clearly shows, it was also the context in which Colin Roach died. It was the reason why those people from the local community who held public demonstrations in favour of a public inquiry came, as the evidence here suggests, to be treated by the police like common criminals.

The Report presents a wealth of evidence, independently collected and fairly summarised. It will strengthen the political will of people in Hackney and elsewhere not simply to accept as gospel what those in power say and do, just because they are the powerful. This is a lesson which many ordinary people, especially those in the Black communities, have already worked out for themselves, for they have consistently supported the Roach family in their search for justice. They have sustained an active campaign of resistance around this and related issues. They have, by their own efforts and organization, made the holding of an unofficial inquiry possible and helped to provide the material means and the political support to have its Report made available to a wider public. Their efforts over the several years since Cohn Roach disappeared into the entrance hall of Stoke Newington police station could, of course, be undone in an instant, as it was undone before, by a press and media treatment which, in its haste to accept official versions of events, however improbable, revealed its contempt for ordinary people.

Fortunately for us all, there are other ways of getting at the truth. In the absence of a public and official duty to discover the truth at whatever cost, it is at least some comfort that ordinary people are still willing and able to take action for themselves.

Professor Stuart Hall
Adviser to Independent Committee of Inquiry into Policing in Hackney

Chronology of the Campaign Following the Death of Colin Roach

1983

January 12 Death of Colin Roach in Stoke Newington police station.

14 Demonstration outside police station by local Black and white youths. 8 arrested.

17 Second demonstration outside police station by local youths. 17 arrested. Roach Family Sup-port Committee (RFSC) formed at meeting called by Hackney Black People’s Association and at-tended by 150 people.

18 Inquest into the death of Colin Roach opens at St. Pancras Coroner’s Court. Immediately adjourned until 18 April.

22. First demonstration organised by RFSC. 22 arrested. 27 Commission for Racial Equality calls for pub-lic inquiry into policing of Hackney.

February 3 RFSC writes to Home Secretary asking for a public inquiry into the death of Cohn Roach, and the surrounding circumstances.

12 Second demonstration called by RFSC. 9 arrested.

18 Funeral of Colin Roach attended by over 300 people.

Hackney Council for Racial Equality (HCRE) publishes dossier on policing in the borough.

Roberts M.P. tables early day motion in Parliament calling for a public inquiry.

Hackney NALGO passes resolution calling for members to ‘break links’ with police.

March 2 Home Secretary replies to RFSC agreeing that a full and independent public inquiry is necessary but saying that this is what the inquest will provide.

12. Third RFSC demonstration. 24 people arrested including James Roach and Councillor Dennis Twomey. Campaign Against Racism and Fascism publishes in Searchlight a dossier of incidents of police racism in Hackney, 1971-83.

April 18 Inquest opens at St. Pancras Coroner’s Court and is adjourned immediately. Coroner applies to the High Court on the issue of the venue.

30 High Court rules that Hackney Council and the Greater London Council have no power to compel the coroner to change the venue of the inquest, but suggests that a larger venue be found.

May 14 Fourth demonstration organised by RFSC. No arrests.

June 6 Inquest opens at Clerkenwell County Court.

17 Jury returns majority (8-2) verdict of suicide.

20 Jurors write to Home Secretary criticising police handling of the case especially their treat-ment of Mr. and Mrs. Roach.

28 Home Secretary replies saying that he is referring the jurors’ letter to the Police Complaints Board.

1984

February 12 Mail on Sunday reports that the officers in the Colin Roach case will not be disciplined.

April 9 Police Complaints Board informs inquest jurors that no further action is to be taken.

1985

April 13 Independent Committee of Inquiry into Policing in Hackney launched by RFSC.

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