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Saturday, October 30, 1999 Published at 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK


Relatives protest at deaths in custody

The marchers are calling for a public inquiry

More than 100 people have marched on Downing Street to demand a public inquiry into the death of more than 1,300 people in custody.

The marchers, most of whom were relatives of the victims, said a disproportionate number of the 1,300 deaths in custody in England and Wales since 1990 were black.

The BBC's Jon Brain: "The Government doesn't accept their claims"
The demonstrators said police brutality was to blame for some of the deaths and carried pictures of their loved ones from Trafalgar Square to Number 10.

There they handed in a card listing more than 200 deaths of black people in prison, psychiatric hospitals and police custody over the last 30 years.

[ image: Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett's twin died in a police cell]
Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett's twin died in a police cell
The marchers also demanded the scrapping of the Police Complaints Authority, and the suspension of prison and police officers involved in custody deaths until investigations are complete.

They also urged legal aid and full disclosure of information for the relatives of victims.

Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett, whose twin brother Leon Patterson was found dead in a police cell six days after being arrested, said she could not believe the inquest verdict that he had been suffering from "hypermania".

Hit with a truncheon

Mr Patterson, 31, who had been arrested for stealing, was found naked with a fractured skull. There was blood on the walls of his cell.

One of the march organisers, Brenda Weinberg, whose brother Brian Douglas died after his skull was fractured when he was hit with a truncheon during an arrest in London in 1995, said she was determined to see justice done.

"It's basically a remembrance march and also a reminder to the government that we're not going away," she said.

[ image: The death of Brian Douglas sparked a campaign for justice]
The death of Brian Douglas sparked a campaign for justice
During a three-week inquiry into Mr Douglas's death, police said they were acting in self-defence, and a verdict of misadventure was recorded.

The family was furious, and the ruling sparked a campaign from many victims' relatives, under the banner of the United Families and Friends Campaign, which organised Saturday's march.

The campaign is demanding more answers about the causes of deaths in custody - which they believe they will only achieve with a public inquiry.

"We that are left here need to go on and move forward, and until these answers are forthcoming we cannot," said Ms Weinberg.

Request turned down

Home Secretary Jack Straw hinted earlier this year he was considering launching a public inquiry into deaths in custody.

But campaign spokesman Ken Fero said Mr Straw wrote to the group last week turning down their request.

The Home Office says the death in custody figures from the marchers were "inflated", but have been unable to give an exact figure.

It says 40% of deaths in custody are linked to drink or drugs, and 25% with suicide.

But Ms Weinberg threw doubt on the statistics, pointing to the experiences of the marchers.

'Improved training'

"There's more than 100 people here today...and you'd be hard pushed to find self-inflicted deaths among them," she said.

A Home Office spokesman told BBC News Online: "Police forces across the country are taking a wide range of actions in an effort to reduce deaths in custody: safer custody facilities, improved training, CCTV and an emphasis on better care, assessment and monitoring of detainees."

He said: "It's encouraging that the total number of deaths in custody is starting to show a downward trend and the Home Office will be working closely with the police to ensure this is maintained."

He said there was no need for a public inquiry and denied the PCA had been discredited.

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