02:02, July 14 171 0 theguardian.com

2020-07-14 02:02:04
The Society interview  Naima Sakande: 'There's too much self-congratulation when we talk about race in the UK'

“Stop and search has little, if any, effect on police recorded crime, research has demonstrated time and again,” says Naima Sakande, women’s justice advocate at the UK charity law practice, Appeal.

“Instead it erodes trust in authority among ethnic minorities who have to deal with invasive questioning by police under suspicion for nothing more than being a black or brown person in the wrong area at the wrong time.”

She should know. Appeal investigates miscarriages of justice and many of its clients claim they are innocent or have been unfairly imprisoned.

So Sakande welcomes last week’s decision by the Independent Office for Police Conduct to investigate whether police across England and Wales racially discriminate against ethnic minorities in their use of force and stop and search.

How stop and search in the UK is failing black people – video explainer

The review comes in the wake of high-profile cases that have been filmed. The Met police commissioner, Cressida Dick, apologised last week for causing distress to British Olympic athlete Bianca Williams when officers stopped, searched and handcuffed her and her partner.

Sakande, a renowned criminal investigator, says these cases are all too common. “BAME people are over-represented in terms of the number of people who are arrested, proceeded against, convicted and sentenced.”

In England and Wales, if you are black you are nearly 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police and eight times more likely to be tasered than if you are white, while black men are three times more likely than white men to be arrested.

Sakande points out that prisons in England and Wales have disproportionately more black and ethnic minority people per capita than in the US. “There is too much self-congratulation when we talk about race in the UK,” she says, “that it’s an ‘American problem’. But we need to hold ourselves to account and hold up a mirror to this society that exported racism to the US in the first place.”

Sakande hopes the Black Lives Matter movement will accelerate the efforts to address institutional racism. “While the symbolism of statues and the call for Britain to reckon with its colonial and racist history is crucial, I think the government has hidden behind that debate in order not to make bold and difficult decisions to improve outcomes in the criminal justice system.”

It was in her first job working as a pre-trial investigator at The Bronx Defenders in New York, that Sakande, now 28, first saw how systemic racism in policing affects minority communities. Police brutality cases were common and domestic abuse cases came across her desk more than any other type. “It was completely nuts, I even had a gun pulled on me once. You were investigating such a wide range of crimes, and talking to people all day long about what they’d seen,” she recalls.

Sakande believes the justice system has become less and less about the people whose lives it affects. Instead, she claims, it is increasingly a “fancy talking shop” for barristers and judges. She is horrified at recent proposals to restrict jury trials in order to get through a backlog of untried criminal court cases which ttotalled 37,000 even before the lockdown. “I think the proposals are terrifying,” she says. “Juries comprise 12 randomly selected citizens who are more likely to share the life experiences of victims and defendants than those representing them in court – upper and middle class, very well-educated, mostly white lawyers and judges.” The criminal bar is 85.3% white and 3.2% black while just 1.1% of QCs are black, she points out. Only 30 out of 2,700 judges in England and Wales and Scotland are black and there are no black court of appeal judges.

While juries tend to be very fair, when you look at judicial decision making, bias comes into play. “Black people are more likely to get a custodial sentence, black youths are more likely to be given longer stints in prison for the same offence as white youths,” she says. “In terms of a system that is representative, where you can be assured the general public has a voice and common sense prevails in the courtroom, the jury is your only safeguard.”

In 2017, The Lammy review made a draft of recommendations to address race inequalities in the justice system. “We need these to be implemented in full,” says Sakande.

She is particularly concerned about black women’s experience of criminal justice. Black women are twice as likely as white women to be arrested and 18% of the women’s prison population in England and Wales is from a minority ethnic background.

“The vast bulk of the cases I deal with involve women wrongfully convicted because domestic abuse hasn’t been properly understood or put to a judge in a trial”, she explains. As a member of the legal advisory board for the domestic abuse bill currently going through the House Of Lords, Sakande is among those calling for an amendment that provides a statutory defence for domestic abuse survivors who are are driven to offend.

More than 60% of female offenders have experienced domestic abuse, according to the Ministry of Justice. A recent report by Sakande examined the barriers to appeal for women in prison and found that even if it might have helped their case, many disclosed abuse for the first time in jail. Often by the time they confided in someone the 28-day window for an appeal had expired.

“I’m very concerned about how incapable the criminal justice system seems to be at dealing with delayed reporting,” says Sakande. “If you haven’t told your barrister in the meeting before your trial there is little opportunity for it to be raised again.”

“There is very little recourse for women who don’t trust the system,” says Sakande. “So when they feel able to tell the truth there is little means of seeking justice.”

Many do not feel able to report their abuse. Only 37% of black and minority ethnic women who experience violence make a formal report to the police. “This is really shocking,” says Sakande.

She says BAME women need to be assured that their disclosures will be taken seriously and will result in their safety.

“If reports are dismissed due to racial stereotyping – internal monologues like ‘black women are aggressive, maybe she was giving as good as she got’ preventing proper police action – BAME women’s confidence that they can be protected from abuse diminishes to a dry husk.”

While she is sceptical about yet another inquiry, she says, in the current climate, the IOPC cannot afford to get it wrong. “The time for reports is over, the research is there and we know what needs to happen, it’s about implementing change.”

She hopes this time, the level of protests and debate will lead to lasting improvements. “I’m very inspired by the level of protest and discourse within the BLM movement. I think those conversations about who we are and how we relate to one another are likely to have a lasting impact and that is where I am optimistic.”

Curriculum vitae

Age: 28.

Family: Single.

Lives: Hackney, east London.

Education: Ardingly College Senior School, West Sussex; United World College, Costa Rica; Yale University, USA (BA, global affairs & international development).

Career: 2017-present: women’s justice advocate, APPEAL; 2015-17: project worker & programme lead for young women, Leap Confronting Conflict; 2016-17: creator and host, Third Culture Podcast; 2014-15: investigator, The Bronx Defenders, New York City.

Public life: member, legal advisory board for the domestic abuse bill; trustee, Women in Prison.

Interests: Feminist science fiction, travel, warbling to the radio, reggaeton & afrobeat, third culture identities, global youth education, theatre.