National Police Memorial Day (NPMD) is held every year on the nearest Sunday to Saint Michael’s day (the patron saint of police officers), in tribute to fallen officers.
This year’s remembrance was made all the more poignant for the fact that another police officer, Matiu Ratana, was killed the Friday before.
Ratana’s name is now one of roughly 4,000 of police officers who have been killed on duty since 1792, ‘when an act of parliament created the first salaried Constables’, according to the NPMD website.
In fact, it is unknown how many officers have died in the execution of their duty, but the Police Roll of Honour website states that ‘the first recorded death in the "Proceedings of the Old Bailey" dates from 1680’.
This appeared to be the starting point for mainstream broadcasters’ coverage of the day, despite the fact that the first professional police was formed in 1829. Sky News reported that ‘more than 1,600 officers have died while performing vital tasks such as foiling terrorists, quelling rioters and marshalling protests since 1680, according to a National Police Memorial roll’.
And BBC News live coverage reported something similar.
The NPMD website goes on to say: ‘For those brave souls to be remembered, on at least one day a year, is long overdue’.
But why stop there? We ought to consider all civilians who died in the line of police officers’ duty too.
Unfortunately, those kinds of records aren’t as comprehensive as the police’s, but thanks to the efforts of the charity INQUEST, we do know that 1,758 people have died in police custody since 1990.
That’s more civilians in 30 years than officers in over 300. One every week on average in the last three decades, compared with five every year in the last three centuries.
And a quick scan of the records suggests that many deaths occurred in less threatening circumstances than the phrase ‘in the line of duty’ might typically bring to mind:
Here's a selection, most of them are car accidents on the way too or from work or just having a heart attack pic.twitter.com/CxrXODai5A
— sloth bear on a bike ⁷ (@HeftyLeftie) September 25, 2020
So where is the monument to our fallen at the hands of police brutality?
The inquest of Kevin Clarke (ongoing at the time of publication) is but one instance of the many deaths that occur in the custody of an institution that sometimes seems more keen to enforce itself on – rather than provide care for – the people it purports to serve.
And while one may hope that justice is done in these sorts of cases, it is useful to remember that only on two occasions in the last 50 years (since 1969) have police officers been convicted in relation to a death in their custody, and one of them was a suspended sentence for misconduct in public office (falsifying custody records). Meanwhile, our government considers ever tougher sentence terms for those convicted of murdering officers.
But why the special treatment for slained officers only? Surely every killing results in a tragic loss of life, and in a country that abolished the death penalty for murder 55 years ago (presumably in the pursuit of a humane approach to criminal justice), it is morally unjustifiable regardless of who commits the act.
Unfortunately, for the families of individuals like Kevin Clarke, the deaths of their loved ones at the hands of police officers too often resemble a form of capital punishment without trial.
By Eugene K
Communications volunteer for StopWatch UK
Lead image by Étienne Godiard on Unsplash