Who Killed Colin Roach?
Colin Roach died of a gunshot wound he received in the foyer of Stoke Newington police station on the 12th of January, 1983. The precise time of death was never established, but it was somewhere between 11:30 and midnight.
On January 12th, Colin, 21, unemployed, black, asked a friend to drive him over to Stoke Newington High Street to visit his brother. His friend thought Colin seemed ‘petrified’, and on the journey he talked about someone who was going to kill him.
Colin got out of the car in the High Street and then walked into Stoke Newington police station. Concerned, Colin’s friend went to get Colin’s father, who lived in Bow. His concern was justified – as Colin walked into the front entrance of the police station, a sawn-off shotgun was pushed into his mouth and he was blown away. The police claimed that he did it himself.
His friends insisted that though he was worried about something following his release from a three month jail term a week or two before, he wasn’t suicidal nor a suicidal type. He’d spent the day normally enough visiting friends, buying parts for his car etc.
Colin’s father James arrived at the police station, looking for his son, at 12:15 pm. The front doors were taped off as a crime scene, so he was taken to the rear of the station and led to a room upstairs. Mr Roach was then questioned until 2:45 – only then did the police reveal that his son was dead. James Roach was held at the station until 4:45 am and was not permitted to see Colin’s body.
He was then taken home by the police, who then searched Colin’s bedroom. James’ wife Pamela, who had just been informed of her son’s death, was forced down into a chair by a policewoman who gripped her around the neck, when she stood up in alarm at hearing the police turning Colin’s bedroom. The officers left the Roach household, having found nothing of significance, and without offering apologies or condolences.
Colin’s death was hardly a unique incident: relations between police in Hackney and much of the local community had been close to broken down for a number of years; to the point where the natural assumption of a sizeable section of the community was to assume the police had themselves killed Colin.
‘The community hated us and we hated them. It wasn’t a black thing. It wasn’t as complex as that. If you went out in uniform or plain clothes you could feel the hatred’.
Detective Constable Declan Costello.
‘The officers involved in these atrocities can do this because they are not accountable to anybody. They cover up their crimes by picking on the weak – unemployed and uneducated people who do not have any knowledge of the law. There are no rights for black people, and if you are poor it’s worse; as far as the law is concerned you have no place in society. You are a dog; when they kick you, you move’.
Hugh Prince, victim of Hackney police.
Police had been accused of targeting black people locally for several years.
The informally named “sus law” allowed police to stop and arrest anyone they thought was acting suspiciously. Many in the black community felt they were being unfairly targeted. Wrongful arrests, unlawful use of force, racial abuse, raids on people’s homes and use of stop and search. Sus was targeted at young Black people overwhelmingly by police, mainly white, who took little trouble to conceal an often racist hostility to the local Black population.
Just a few examples:
In May 1971, Aseta Simms died in Stoke Newington Police Station in suspicious circumstances.
In December 1978, Black teenager Michael Ferreira was stabbed during a fight with white teenagers in Stoke Newington. His friends took him to the nearby police station, where the cops seemed more interested in questioning them than assisting Michael, who died of his wounds before reaching hospital.
This incident led to the setting up of Hackney Black People’s Defence Organisation.
On 24th April 1979 Hackney resident Blair Peach was killed by police, hit over the head during a protest against the National Front in Southall. Peach was killed by an officer from the notorious Special Patrol Group. The SPG’s lockers were searched as part of the investigation into the death, uncovering non-police issue truncheons, knives, two crowbars, a whip, a 3ft wooden stave and a lead-weighted leather cosh. One officer was found in possession of a collection of Nazi regalia. The failure of the police to properly investigate the murder of Blair Peach – and their general harassment of youth, led Hackney Teachers’ Association to adopt a policy of non-cooperation with the police.
November 1979: A conference of anti-racist groups in Hackney called for the repeal of the “sus” laws that allow police to stop and search anyone they are suspicious of. In 1977 60% of “sus” arrests in Hackney were of black people – who made up 11% of the borough population.
February 1980: Five units of the notorious paramilitary Special Patrol Group began to operate in Hackney with no consultation. When the Leader of the Council criticised the police for this, Commander Mitchell responded by saying “I don’t feel obliged to tell anyone about my policing activities”.
In response, Black youth became hostile to police and began to resist racist violence, physically if necessary. Although incidents were common, resistance reached a high point locally with three days of rioting in Dalston, Stoke Newington and Hackney during the 1981 anti-police uprisings.
In November 1982, Hackney Black People’s Association demanded an independent public enquiry into the conduct of the police in Hackney. Their concerns were specifically about corruption, and violence against black people.
The Colin Roach Campaign
The morning after Colin’s death, the newspapers were filled with the suicide of a black man in Stoke Newington police station. The police had issued a press release was issued at 1:30 am – while James Roach was being questioned and an hour before he had even been informed of his son’s death. The family, accompanied by a Tower Hamlets councillor who they knew, went to the police station to try to find out more about Colin’s death – and were treated with suspicion and hostility.
In response Colin’s friends organised a demonstration for 14th January. About 90 black and white youths gathered outside the police station with placards and asked for an explanation from the police superintendent. This was refused. Some of the demonstrators then blocked the traffic on Stoke Newington High Street: as a result, 50 police officers poured out of the station and attacked them, arresting eight people.
Hackney Committee for Racial Equality called for a public enquiry into the incident, Hackney Black People’s Association called for one into local policing. Local councillors and leftish MP Ernie Roberts started making noises about Colin’s death.
A meeting of ‘community leaders’ was called the next day. Police gave their account of the incident, including a post-mortem report which supported their argument that Colin had shot himself. Local police commander Bill Taylor said the police had called the meeting to be ‘as open and helpful as we can’, to ‘allay misunderstandings’. He was challenged by community activists and leaders, though local MP Clinton Davies tried to quieten down the questions, insisting all contentious issues should be left to the inquest.
The community leaders left asserting that ‘several questions still needed answers’. Somewhat unimpressed by police statements and by what passed for community ‘leadership’, local youth staged another demonstration outside the police station on January 17th. Police eventually launched a baton charge, making 19 arrests. The crowd dispersed but remained in the area in small groups for some hours. The same night a public meeting at Hackney Black People’s Association, attended by 150 people, formed a Support Committee for the Roach family. The meeting demanded an independent public enquiry into Colin Roach’s death.
A march from the town hall to the police station was arranged for the following Saturday. The march attracted 500 people who observed a two minute silence outside the police station. The stewards’ calls for a peaceful demonstration were ignored by a part of the crowd. ‘Scuffles’ broke out as the demonstration dispersed. Perhaps coincidentally a jeweller’s shop window was smashed nearby and several thousand pounds worth of stock taken. A large group of youths ran down Stoke Newington High Street breaking windows. In the subsequent fighting two police were injured and 22 people arrested.
The Roach Family Support Committee organised further demonstrations over the next few months, which were also met with severe police reactions and arrests. Eighty people in total were arrested outside Stoke Newington police station during the six protests, including an elected councillor and Colin’s father, James. Three hundred people attended Colin Roach’s funeral.
The campaign’s demand for an independent public enquiry was fobbed off by William Whitelaw, the Home Secretary, who initially said that the coroner’s inquest into the death would perform the same function, but then later admitted that its scope was much narrower.
In May 1983, the inquest jury agreed 8-2 that Colin Roach had committed suicide. However, the jury also criticised the conduct of the police, especially in their dealings with the Roach family. Police relations with the family were referred to the Police Complaints Board (since replaced several equally ineffective brandings, all just as fucking useless) who ruled that no officers would face any disciplinary action.
The Roach Family Support Committee in response set up its own Independent Committee of Inquiry, examining the death of Colin Roach and the wider issue of policing in Hackney. In 1988, it published a 313-page book, ‘Policing in Hackney 1945-1984’.
– Testimony from witnesses (surrounding Colin’s death,the subsequent demonstrations and policing generally)
– Challenges to the inquest process and its findings
– Accounts and criticism of police action
– Details of the community response to the police
– Criticism of the accounts in the media of Colin – Roach apparently having mental health problems and this contributing to his death
– Rebuttals of suggestions in the media that the justice
campaign was ‘extremist’
– The history of policing in Hackney from 1945-1984
including policing anti-fascism, previous police racism, etc.
– An examination of the wider issue of police accountability
The Independent Committee of Inquiry concluded that the inquest’s verdict of suicide was not actually proven, and that there was evidence to suggest other explanations. For example, the weapon was never forensically linked to Colin Roach. He was not wearing gloves, but the gun did not have his fingerprints on, nor could it have been concealed in his bag. Two different police officers claimed to be the first to discover gun cartridges in Colin’s pockets (which again had no fingerprints on them).
The report also called for organisations in Hackney to ‘break links’ with the police until a proper inquiry was held and the issues around Colin’s death and wider police racism and abuse were resolved.
The death of Colin Roach and the response to it overshadowed the community and the police throughout the rest of the century.
An annual demonstration took place every January to remember Colin and other victims of local police racism and violence continued for several years through the 1980s and early 1990s, the ‘We Remember’ march (a tradition continued now more widely by the United Friends and Families Campaign’s annual march every October).
Policing remained a central concern for Black people locally. Colin’s death sparked a campaign for breaking contact with and defunding of the police, which came close to becoming longterm council policy.
In July 1982, Hackney Council set up a Police Committee. A Support Unit was also established which monitored crime and policing and published reports critical of police powers.
Hackney Council then resolved to withhold its statutory annual contribution of £4 million to the Metropolitan Police. Which predictably generated more outrage in the press. A month later it was determined that this was not legal and so the contribution was actually paid.
In 1984, Keith Newman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, criticised Hackney as an area in which ‘extreme activists seek to represent practically any police intervention as harassment’, singling out the campaign for an independent public inquiry into the death of Colin Roach as an example of this. Anthony Kendall, the Leader of Hackney Council, attacked Newman for his ‘irrelevant and irresponsible political views’ which demonstrated ‘just how dangerously unaware he is of the real facts of life in areas like Hackney’.
Obviously, as the 1980s went on, left labour Councils gradually became more and more moderate, and Hackney was no exception; anti-police rhetoric gradually got toned down until it vanished altogether under New Labour…
Meanwhile, Hackney Teachers Association (a branch of the National Union of Teachers) began discussions about non-cooperation; this had started during the Justice For Blair Peach Campaign, but came to the fore after the death of Colin Roach. One third of Hackney schools ended up excluding the police from their premises in the 1980s. The Police Out of School Policy became widely supported by teachers, parents and kids.
Police violence and community resistance continued; with incidents like the arrest and beating of Trevor Monerville in 1987, which left him with brain damage; and the death in custody of Tunay Hassan in Dalston police copshop a few months later.
Mounting anger again came to a head, and Hackney Community Defence Association (HCDA) was formed to providing the victims of police crime with a campaigning voice – a self-help group for the victims of police crime. HCDA investigated allegations against the police, provided mutual support for victims and campaigned against police injustice. HCD went on to name many officers involved in racism, violence, and drug-dealing and corruption. (A post for another day)
Along with Hackney Trade Union Support Unit and other local activists, HCDA launched the Colin Roach Centre on 12 January 1993 (the tenth anniversary of Colin’s death) as a local action & resource centre.