As the fury over the death of George Floyd engulfs the US and fuels global outrage, scrutiny is steadily turning towards events closer to home.
That’s because disquietingly similar deaths to Floyd's have already happened on UK streets. Many times. Incidents in which white police officers have knelt on a black man, only for them to die soon after have occurred across our capital - and not so long ago. The suspected reason: neck restraints.
This was the technique used so devastatingly on Floyd and which is still officially sanctioned for use by UK officers, despite the fact internal memos warn such techniques may cause 'fatality to the subject.'
During the summer of 2017, I investigated how four black men ended up dead, after being apprehended by officers, in little over a month. Edson Da Costa was the first to die. A video, shot by bystanders and seen by members of the family, chronicles his last conscious moments, but has never been made public. If ever released, it threatens to look grotesquely similar to the events in Minneapolis currently shaking America. Edson, like Floyd, was pinned face down on a road by four officers. One, said witnesses, placed a knee on Edson’s neck, like Derek Chauvin did to Floyd. Accounts from bystanders claim officers held him on an East London road for between eight and 10 minutes - compared to Floyd’s eight minutes and 46 seconds.
As in Minneapolis, witnesses challenged the officers, shouting that the prone man was clearly dying. 'You’re killing him,' one Londoner kept yelling. After around five minutes, Edson, as with Floyd, was reportedly losing consciousness. There were complications getting medical help. Edson, like Floyd, was unarmed and never posed a threat. Nor did he resist arrest.
Weeks later and just four miles away in an off-license, teenager Rashan Charles died in eerily similar circumstances after being restrained by police. This time, footage was published. Within four minutes the body of the apparently fit 19-year-old goes limp. Rashan never regains consciousness and was one of three black men to die over an eight day period that summer. All fell 'unresponsive' following police contact.
Several months later, Nuno Cardaso, 25, became 'unresponsive' in a police van after lying face down with an officer sitting on him. Inquests into the five deaths yielded shocking details. One officer who apprehended Edson interpreted his dying breaths as yawning. Edson’s mother, though, never found out. Within weeks of her son’s death she had died - collapsing in the street after becoming 'unwell' - which the family believe to have been from the shock of losing her son in such tragic circumstances. Edson's father remains tormented over how trained officers failed to notice Edson struggling for breath.
Another of the deaths that summer involved Darren Cumberbatch, from Coventry, who was restrained and later died in hospital, where families noticed his body covered in bruises and strange markings. The electrician, 32, had been tasered, punched 15 times, struck with batons and sprayed with an incapacity substance after resisting arrest, an inquest heard.
An independent watchdog investigation into Darren’s death has not been published almost three years later. Race, the families feel privately at least, played a part in their loss. An official report has since corroborated those instincts, confirming evidence of racial disproportionality in police restraint deaths.
Edson's inquest found he died after a bag of drugs he swallowed became trapped in his airways. In response, guidance was updated for officers who stop suspects who place items in their mouths. Now, Edson would be classified as a 'medical emergency' and not held down in a way that restricts breathing.
Yet, the controversial knee restraint that helped kill Floyd remains sanctioned here in the UK. Latest advice dictates that officers can resort to its use only 'if they needed to do so,' but are discouraged because of its 'lethal potential.' A College of Policing statement explains further. 'Neck restraints and choke holds are not taught routinely within the officer safety training programme, but that isn’t to say that an officer could not utilise a neck restraint if they needed to do so.'
So far, no individual has been or prosecuted for the five deaths of 2017. Those involved in arresting Edson were said to have behaved 'correctly in very difficult circumstances.'
In the US, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Those impending criminal proceedings may underline where the similarities disappear between the UK and what is unfolding in the US. Justice, say the families, may prove the difference.
Mark Townsend is the Observer's home affairs editor and was previously an award-winning foreign reporter for the paper.
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