Racism and the police – the case of Sylbert Farquharson
February 11, 2003 — Comment
Written by Saleh Mamon
On 31 January 2003, Sylbert Farquharson won a civil case against police officers who subjected him to a racist beating in Stockwell, south London.
The facts before Judge Michael Dean, sitting at the Central London County Court, must have been so horrific as to make him cast aside the normal reserve of his office. Mr Farquharson had been, he said, ‘subjected to explicit racist abuse in the street and a particularly vicious and cowardly form of racist abuse at the police station’.
Sylbert Farquharson, 57, was described by the judge as ‘a respectable, middle-aged family man of good character’. He was a delivery van driver, one of the invisible black workers who service London. His is precisely the kind of case that will be forgotten by a nation where news turns over at electronic speed, leaving little time for reflection.
One day in July 1995, Mr Farquharson arrived in Landor Road, Stockwell, to find his cousin Stephen Smith arrested for obstruction. Stephen had protested to the police that the handcuffing of a café proprietor, Clinton Washington, was too tight. The arrest of Mr Washington had occurred after police saw him waving to a black man in a BMW car and suspected that he might be involved with drugs.
On seeing his cousin under arrest, Mr Farquharson went to find out what was happening. He was then assaulted by three police officers and thrown face down in the gutter in the presence of members of the public. He was restrained by two sets of handcuffs which cut into his wrists, causing permanent physical damage. The policemen had failed to take the precautionary measure of double locking the handcuffs. This was all accompanied by a torrent of explicit racial abuse and insults.
The incident was witnessed by a social worker and a probation officer, who complained to the Police Complaints Authority. But no action was taken.
Later, the Crown Prosecution Service brought cases against both Mr Farquharson and Mr Smith but these were dismissed by a magistrate. The three black men subsequently brought a civil case against the police officers, which was heard by Judge Dean. He said of the police evidence that ‘unhappily, the officers felt obliged to invent an account of events which they knew to be untrue to justify their actions. This untrue account was persisted in and led to an unsuccessful prosecution’. In his view, the prosecution had been brought about to disguise unlawful action.
After hearing independent witnesses who supported Mr Farquharson’s account, the judge ruled that the police had assaulted, falsely imprisoned and maliciously prosecuted Mr Farquharson and Mr Smith and that they had assaulted Mr Washington. The police settled out of court the claims brought by Mr Smith and Mr Washington, paying £80,000 including costs. The judge ruled that he was satisfied that Mr Farquharson’s physical and psychological injuries meant that he would never work again. He awarded him £243,488, adding: ‘There is a clear public interest in condemning racist behaviour on the part of persons in authority in order to assure the diverse elements of our community that the police have no warrant to treat any citizen with contempt and oppression.’
Following the hearing, two constables were suspended and Sir John Stevens, the Met Commissioner, has threatened to sack racist police officers. But at the heart of this story is the question of how the police are to be held accountable for their actions. This case, as well as many others, demonstrate that the police cannot be left to investigate their misconduct, even if investigators come from a distant constabulary. Why did the Police Complaints Authority fail to pursue the complaint made by independent witnesses? Note how ranks closed to defend the miscreant constables and the Met. They will now draw upon £750,000 from the public purse to pay the legal costs for defending the indefensible. This case surely demonstrates the dire need for a truly independent body to hold the police accountable to the public.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.