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'We Just Want To Know How He Died'
London, UK, April 24, 2006 – Outside Plumstead police station in south-east London, on a sunny April Fool's Day, a demonstration is under way. There are less than 100 protesters, but the police are out in considerable force, several dozen officers lined up on either side of the demonstrators and six police vans filled with more parked up nearby. The demonstrators hold up handmade placards, reading "Answers now!" and "Police brutality is our reality". On some of the placards is a picture of a young, dark-skinned man, his hair hidden by a streetwear skull cap. This is the second organized protest at the death of Nuur Saeed, a 22-year-old Somali man from Woolwich, who died after a catastrophic fall on January 10 this year, either before or during a raid by Plumstead police. He was the second black man to die in unexplained circumstances involving Plumstead police actions in six months. The demonstrators want to know why.
On January 10, Saeed's aunt and uncle, who had brought him up since he arrived as an orphan from Somalia in 1995, were expecting him to join them for a family Eid dinner. That afternoon, Nuur took his cousin Abdi back to his flat in Woolwich to lend him some clothes for the evening. The flat was on the third floor, though he had requested a groundfloor one, because he was scared of heights. "He never went near the window," says Saeed's cousin Faisa Mohamed.
Abdi left Saeed at his flat at about 4.30pm to get a haircut. He thought they would meet up later. But by 5.15pm, Nuur Saeed was lying at the foot of a three-storey block of flats on Sandbach Place, an estate a few minutes' walk away, with massive brain injuries. He had fallen approximately 25 feet from the back balcony of number 48, apparently at around the same time as it was raided by Plumstead police (the exact timing is still unclear). Though officers called an ambulance and rushed Saeed to hospital, he never regained consciousness, dying two weeks later.
How Saeed fell and why are questions yet to be answered. Only some facts are certain. Number 48 wasn't Saeed's flat, nor did it belong to any of his friends that his family knew about. The police have not confirmed who owns the flat, and the family still do not know, but they have said they weren't looking for Saeed and that the first they knew of him was when they saw him lying on the ground. In fact, for 24 hours, they had no idea who he was.
At 6pm on January 11, officers arrived at the Mohamed house thinking they had identified the injured man. Mohamed doesn't understand why it took so long. "They said Nuur's wallet was missing," she says, "and that they had no means of identifying him. But they found his mobile phone in the flat, and his address book had numbers like 'Mum' and 'Cuz'." When the family finally got to King's College hospital at 9pm, they were surprised at Nuur's lack of visible injuries. Despite having fallen so far, he had only a small gash on the back of his head and a grazed knee. "We expected broken bones. But there was nothing."
By now, Greenwich Borough Police, where Plumstead is located, had decided to hand their internal investigation into Saeed's fall over to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). No complaint had been made about Saeed, says a Greenwich police spokeswoman; it was standard practice to refer serious incidents to the IPCC. Though Saeed was still alive at this stage, and though he hadn't been arrested, he was potentially a "technical death in custody".
For the two weeks that Saeed lay injured, the IPCC oversaw a "managed" investigation, the category of inquiry launched, according to IPCC guidelines, "where one of the factors is a death or serious injury that has occurred as a consequence of either a positive or negative action by a person serving with the police". The investigation was later upgraded to an independent one, carried out entirely by IPCC, non-police investigators; such an investigation is judged to be necessary, says Mehmuda Mian Pritchard, the commissioner investigating Saeed's death, for "incidents that cause the greatest level of public concern, have the greatest potential to impact on communities or have serious implications for the reputation of the police service".
Greenwich Police can't comment on ongoing investigations, says a spokesperson. But the implications for the reputation of the police in this area could indeed be significant. It was Plumstead police who investigated the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which led to the accusation of "institutionalized racism" within the Met by the 1999 McPherson inquiry. And only six months before Saeed's death, a 32-year-old mixed-race man, Paul Coker, died on the floor of a Plumstead police cell, after being arrested for breaching the peace following an argument with his girlfriend. Coker's death is also being investigated by the IPCC; his mother Patricia has lent her support to the Justice for Nuur campaign.
Plumstead police have set up regular liaison meetings with community leaders and efforts are clearly being made; when Plumstead officer Wayne Bell made monkey noises to a mixed-race prisoner last year, he was reported by a fellow officer and immediately suspended by the Borough commander. Bell admitted making the gesture but denied it was to do with the man's skin color; he was later acquitted of a racially aggravated behavior by Bow Street Magistrates.
But there are still tensions. At the demonstration, several young Somali men say they have been excessively stopped and searched by the police. "It's got bad in the last three years," says 18-year-old Anwar, "but in the last year, it's got worse." He and other Somali young men date it to the murder of Bradford police officer Sharon Beshenivsky in November - the first suspects to be arrested in her murder were six Somali men from Woolwich (they were later released.) Since then, says Ibrahim, 18, "they're out for revenge."
The mistrust breeds lurid rumors. At least one young demonstrator says he is convinced Saeed was pushed. The family simply say they don't know what happened, though Mohamed thinks police answers to her questions have been confusing. She says the information they have been given relating to whether the police saw Saeed when they entered the flat, and what they may or may not have seen, has been contradictory. The family have put their questions to the IPCC investigator at two meetings. "They've given us little bits of information, but never all of it."
"I have tried to be as open with the family as possible," says Pritchard. "I have met with them and will meet them again if they wish." That's as far as she will comment. "I don't want to create confusion, but I have to follow protocol."
This is understandable. But the decision to show CCTV footage of Saeed's fall to community leaders at a police liaison meeting, without consulting the family first, has also caused upset. "That's appalling for the family to deal with," says family solicitor Jane Deighton. "The video is of someone falling to his death. That's someone's brother and son. There's no purpose other than to say, 'Look, you can't see a police officer killing him.' It's an abuse of evidence and the prime purpose is to put the police in a better light."
The CCTV footage was followed by a press release on March 31 stating that, "The CCTV [footage] shows that Nuur Saeed was alone on the balcony when he fell." At the demonstration on the following day, Greenwich police distributed a leaflet of their own that was even more candid. "Rumors that police pushed him over the balcony are therefore unfounded and untrue." In neither case was the family consulted. "It's utterly disrespectful of the family's views," says Deighton. "The IPCC are prejudicing evidence in an investigation. They shouldn't be releasing evidence into the public domain before an inquest. This is how the police used to behave."
"By putting out the reference to the CCTV, what were the IPCC trying to do?" asks Deborah Coles, of Inquest, a pressure group that investigates deaths in custody. "So what if he was alone on the balcony? He was quite clearly frightened enough about what was taking place to have died." Both the Coker and Saeed investigations, she says, raise troubling questions about the IPCC's impartiality. "The system is supposed to have changed, but we've seen a pattern of attempts to deflect the attention away from officers and on to the deceased, under a supposedly independent system of investigation. That does untold damage."
Meanwhile, the family of Saeed remain confused. "We've got so many questions," says Mohamed. "Like, why was his mobile phone switched off? Where were his clothes? The hospital said the police took Nuur's clothes, but the police said they didn't have them. Then they said they did." (The clothes are now with IPCC forensic investigators). There was also confusion about the raid itself. "They said the house had been under surveillance for an hour, but that they hadn't seen Nuur enter. They said they thought no one was in the house, so why raid it?" Sources have said that drugs were found in the house, but Saeed's family are adamant he didn't use them.
Pritchard expects to conclude her inquiry into Saeed's death "in the next month or so". His family will then get the results of his postmortem, and there will be an inquest. Any or all of this might tell them why a young man scared of heights fell or jumped to his death. If not, says Mohamed, "we're going to continue making a fuss. He was a normal kid. We just want to know how he died".
Source: Guardian, April 24, 2006