Are Black People More Likely to Die in Police Custody?

A recent Panorama documentary entitled “I Can’t Breathe—Black and Dead in Custody” repeated the oft-quoted statistic that black people are twice as likely as white people to die in police custody in the UK. This is a misleading statistic based on deceptively selected data. Selection bias and confirmation bias go hand in hand, and those who believe that police in the UK are institutionally racist will select the data that confirms their bias. It is derived by comparing the proportion of those who died in police custody who were black (6%) to the proportion of black people in the general population (3.3%). The first deception is that the proportion of black people in the general population is rounded down to 3%, making them appear twice as likely to die in custody, rather than the more accurate 1.81 times. But even this is misleading, as comparing these two statistics presumes that people of a particular demographic group enter police custody at a rate directly proportional to their segment of the general population, which is not the case. Despite accounting for 6% of deaths in police custody between 2004 and 2016, 8% of those who entered police custody were black. As such, black people are underrepresented in deaths in police custody by 25%. Compare that to white people, who accounted for 84% of arrests over this period and 87% of those who died in custody, making white people slightly overrepresented in custody deaths. As such, a white person is in fact 37% more likely to die once they enter police custody than a black person.

Of course, this analysis of the data is insufficient to dispel the notion of institutional racism, as critics will assert that arrest rates of black people are higher due to racism rather than higher crime rates. This was the conclusion of Dame Elish Angiolini in her 2017 review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody. Angiolini found that black people were six times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts. She attributes this discrepancy to institutional racism, though she does not address other possible factors, such as crime rates. Black people are three times more likely to be arrested, three times as likely to receive a police caution, three times more likely to be prosecuted for an offence, and twice as likely to be prosecuted for a drug offence than white people. These statistics can easily be dismissed as a result of racially prejudiced “overzealous policing”, a position which is difficult to falsify as the data available to counter it is itself in question.

Data regarding the victims of crime can help to verify the rates of crime within different communities. Black people were 22% more likely than whites to be victims of violent crime and 15% more likely to be victims of domestic abuse than whites. Black people were also five times more likely to be victims of firearm offences than whites. They were also three times as likely to be victims of homicide, with 59% of those homicides the result of a knife attack, almost twice the proportion of white homicides (33%). The Crime Survey for England and Wales found that 5.8% of black respondents reported being a victim of a crime within the previous twelve months, compared to only 4% of white respondents. 23.68% of black respondents felt they were “very or fairly likely” to be a victim of a crime within the next twelve months, compared to 17.36% of white respondents. Considering that criminals tend to carry out their crimes within their own communities and upon victims of their own race, this would suggest that black people are more likely to live in communities with higher crime rates. Of course, this only represents a 45% higher likelihood, which doesn’t fully account for the 200% higher likelihood of a black person being arrested.

Stop and Search (S&S) is a particularly contentious police practice which has received much criticism for being racially discriminatory. This accusation is not unwarranted, black individuals are much more likely to be stopped and searched. In 2009/10, only 6% of stops and searches of black people led to arrests, compared to 9.5% of white people who were stopped. This would suggest that the stops of black people were less justified, the police having less reasonable cause to stop them than their white counterparts. In response to this criticism, in recent years the police have raised the standard of reasonable cause for S&S leading to an overall drop in the number of stops and an adjustment in the proportion of those stopped and searched. The proportion of white people stopped increased from 68% in 2010/11 to 75% in 2015/16, while the proportion of black people stopped decreased from 17% to 12%. As would be expected with an increase in the standard of reasonable cause, the proportion of stops resulting in arrests increased for all groups. However, there was a much more marked increase in the arrest rate of black people being stopped and searched, increasing from 6% arrested to 16% arrested in 2013/14, compared to an increase from 9.5% to only 11.5% for white people stopped. Given that S&S has become less discriminatory and has taken on a higher standard of justification, the large increase in the proportion of stops of black people which resulted in an arrest would suggest that rates of crime among black people are higher.

Conviction rates are another bone of contention for those who believe that the criminal justice system is institutionally racist. A black person prosecuted for an offence is more likely to be convicted than a white defendant. In 2014, 73% of black people tried for an offence were convicted, compared to only 59% of white defendants. Black defendants were also slightly more likely to receive a custodial sentence and a longer prison term than white people who were convicted. Some might derive from this that the courts discriminate against black defendants. However, it must be noted that black defendants were more than twice as likely to have fifteen or more previous cautions or convictions than white defendants. As such, the higher conviction rate and the harsher sentencing is probably related to the criminal history of the defendants, rather than anything to do with racial discrimination. This gives further credence to the notion that crime rates among black people are higher.

The disproportionality of the use of restraint and strip searches is another target of accusations of discrimination. Black detainees were twice as likely to have restraint used upon them as white detainees. Black detainees were also twice as likely to be strip-searched as white detainees. However, there are a number of factors which influence the use of force and strip-searches other than race. Those who were arrested for drug offences and those who were under the influence of drugs were much more likely to have restraint used upon them. Similarly, those arrested for drug offences were much more likely to be strip-searched, and those who were intoxicated upon arrival at the station were almost always strip-searched. When we consider that black detainees were almost four times as likely to be arrested for a drug offence as whites, this would suggest that it is the nature of offending which is influencing the ostensibly disproportionate use of restraint and strip-searches, rather than racial discrimination.

As such, much of the disproportionality in arrest rates and other issues discussed can be explained by higher rates of crime and the nature of offences. However, they don’t account fully for the degree of disproportionality. But it must also be noted that the demographic make-up of the UK population is derived from a census that is almost ten years old. Since the 2011 census, the UK population is estimated to have increased by almost five million people. Non-EU immigration accounts for at least 1.85 million of that increase. Also, taking into consideration that the birth-rate among non-UK born parents is 50% higher than UK-born parents, it’s reasonable to assume that the proportion of BAME individuals in the UK population has increased significantly over the last ten years. This may account for the ostensible disproportionality, even after controlling for rates of crime and nature of offending. It will be interesting to review these statistics once the 2021 census is completed.

Every review investigating institutional racism in the UK police has suggested that apparent police discrimination has undermined faith in the criminal justice system among ethnic minorities. Data from the Crime Survey for England and Wales disputes this suggestion. 66% of black and mixed-race respondents believed that the criminal justice system was fair, as did 66% of white respondents. This faith was even higher among the Asian community (76%) and among the “Chinese and other” (C&O) demographic group (78%). Black respondents had greater faith than white respondents in the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, with 62% of black people believing it was effective, compared to only 49% of white people. Again, the Asian and C&O demographic groups had the highest faith at 68% and 71% respectively. So, while black and minority ethnic detainees perceive their treatment by police to be discriminatory, this sentiment is not reflected in the general population.

None of this is to say that racism is not an issue in policing nor that the UK police were never institutionally racist. The Scarman Report (1982) and The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry (1999) both found compelling evidence of racist attitudes negatively influencing the treatment of suspects, detainees, victims and their families by police. In response to these reports, police in the UK have taken great strides to root out discrimination and provide a safer and more egalitarian environment for minorities. The extent of their success in these endeavours is reflected by the fact that neither the Angiolini Report nor the Inspectorate of Constabulary found any compelling evidence of discriminatory practices other than the disproportionalities examined in this article. Police in the UK should continue to root out racism wherever it is found, but they must also be given credit for the great strides they have made towards that end.

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