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Black DNA could decide British election

ConsumerFeatures
, 05 Mar 2010Features

The "disgraceful" injustice that has led police to take DNA swabs from three-quarters of all young black British men should galvanise black voters enough to swing the general election, community leaders heard at a parliamentary meeting this week.

Since the Labour government relaxed the rules by which police collect DNA samples for their suspect database, the number of black men stored on the database has ballooned in disregard of their guilt or innocence of any crime.

At the last count, conducted in 2008, the police DNA database had recorded swabs taken from just six per cent of all white men in Britain. Yet 42 per cent of all black men had their DNA recorded on the database, while 77 per cent of black men between the ages of 15 and 35 have had their DNA taken by the police.

"This is not just a civil liberties issue, but an election issue," Matilda MacAttram, director of charity Black Mental Health UK, told a meeting at parliament on Tuesday night.

"We as a community cannot afford to elect any government that would criminalise us when we haven't been convicted of a crime."

MacAttram told the meeting of 90 black community leaders and campaigners, which filled the parliamentary committee room almost to capacity, that Caribbean voters alone held the balance of power in 70 seats. "You can win or lose an election on this," she said. Operation Black Vote was working out all the marginal seats where the combined Afro-Caribbean vote could swing the election.

Anger
Sarah Tether, Liberal Democrat MP for Brent East, made a rousing call for black voters to get angry about their disproportionate representation on the police DNA database. Tether said she had been angered by the case of a black friend whose wrongful arrest had resulted in their DNA being taken by police and stored on the suspect database.

"If you are black you are more likely to be treated unfairly," she said. "I don't think that's acceptable. It makes me very angry. And I hope it makes you very angry too. And I hope it makes you angry enough to make this an election issue."

"There is no way the Government can say this system is fair," said Tether, "particularly when you learn that Home Office research has found that black people are less likely to commit a crime than white people."

Neither the Government nor the Home Office accepted invitations to attend the meeting, which heard how both had used dodgy evidence to justify the police collection of innocent people's DNA.

Pastor Desmond Hall, chair of Christians Together in Brent, made an apology on behalf of the church for not doing enough to to hold the government to account.

But he promised the church was mobilising against the collection of innocent black men's DNA: "There's a new Joshua generation rising up in the church and we are going to take back what the Devil has stolen," he declared, drawing a rare bout of spontaneous applause from an otherwise studious meeting.

Prejudice

The meeting was told how the disproportionate numbers of black men on the DNA database both reflected and deepened a prejudice that they were more likely to commit crime. Since more black men were suspected, more black men were arrested and even though less black men were convicted, more black men had their DNA stored on the suspect database.

Anita Coles, policy officer at Liberty Human Rights, said: "This taking-on-arrest leads to the disproportionate over-representation of ethnic minority groups [who] statistically face arrest more often, though not necessarily conviction."

Helen Wallace, director of Genewatch UK, said a record on the DNA database could result in further discrimination, leading to people being refused jobs and visas.

The meeting heard how the database is perpetuating the myth that black men were more likely to commit a crime, which would lead in turn to more black men being wrongfully arrested.

"It becomes almost inevitable that the police think you are more likely to commit a crime if you are black," said Tether. "You know what that leads to? It leads to racial profiling. It leads to stop and search. It leads to you being more likely to be arrested. It leads to longer sentences if you are arrested."

Pastor Hall said this was deepening the distrust young black men had of the police. The system was wrong, he said, and the DNA database was the most wrongful part of it. He could not understand how the establishment could expect young black men to conform when the system treated them so unfairly.

Continued on next page...

Deja vu

"How did we get here?" Olu Alake, president of 100 Young Black Men of London, asked the meeting. "How did the United Kingdom, the home of haebus corpus, the home of the mother of parliaments, the home of human rights and everything else - how did we end up with the largest DNA database in the world?" 

The answer, the meeting was told, was that the Labour government decreed in 2001 that anyone who was charged with an offence should have their DNA stored on the suspect database, even if charges were later dropped or they were found innocent in a court of law. Then in 2003, the government decreed that police should take DNA samples from anyone arrested, and that the DNA should be kept even if they were not charged or convicted. The police had done the rest, through their tendency to arrest black people.

The meeting heard many stories of innocent people having their DNA taken and stored by police.

Alake said his nephew had been arrested after becoming angry at police. He didn't even know his DNA had been taken. He thought the swab was some sort of breathalyser. He became even more angry when Alake told him what had been done with his DNA.

Tether said her friend in Brent was wrongfully arrested on Christmas Day by police searching for a suspect of a different age and height. He was released later that day after the real suspect confessed, but his DNA was subsequently kept on the suspect database.

Pastor Hall spoke for the first time in public about his own son having had "an issue with drugs at an early age". His son had since matured, but had joined the ranks of those, the meeting was told, who would now be stigmatised for the rest of their lives.

Paul Holmes, Liberal Democrat MP for Chesterfield, cited the case of two boys, aged 13 and 14, who had been arrested and swabbed for building a tree house in a cherry tree.  "When I was young, you wouldn't have been arrested for building a tree house," said Holmes. "That would've been what kids did. In this day and age, it's seen as a recordable offence."

Childhood and innocence

Coles said the retention of DNA could have serious consequences for children. She said the Government was trying to put legislation through parliament that would mean children who commit minor offences would have their DNA removed from the database five years after their 18th birthday. But children who were convicted of two minor offences would have their DNA retained indefinitely.

"You could have been convicted of shop-lifting when you are 10 and again when you are 12 and you could be on the DNA database forever," she said.

The meeting heard how the DNA database reversed the presumption of innocence that was a cornerstone of British law. Cole said the database could risk stigmatising people because it made them look suspect.

The police performed a digital sweep of the DNA database every night, searching its suspect list against recently recorded crimes. The DNA database "conflates arrest with conviction and guilt," said Coles.

Holmes said the Liberal Democrats promised to delete the DNA records of anyone not convicted of a crime from the DNA database. Their retention was a "travesty" and a "disgrace", he said.

James Brokenshire, Conservative MP for Hornchurch, told the meeting that the DNA of innocent people should be removed in all instances, except where someone had been suspected of a serious crime.

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