What killed Sentry Taitoko?

[Protests against the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson have exposed the racism and violence of the police in the United States. We stand in solidarity with these protests, and urge readers to join New Zealand solidarity demonstrations.

Maori and other victims of police racism in this country will recognize accounts of police brutality. This article was first published in Socialist Review 47 in March this year. Since its publication there has been no further comment from the police on Mr Taitoko’s death. It seems appropriate to republish it now – protests again racist police violence overseas must focus also on racist police violence here in Aotearoa/New Zealand.]

Deaths in police custody are not a growing issue insists Police Minister Anne Tolley. “There’s a whole lot of protections,” she announced during a recent interview, adding dismissively: “look it’s always regrettable but there are circumstances sometimes beyond anyone’s control.”

Try telling that to the family of Sentry Taitoko, aged just 20 when he died in a police cell in late February. “Our world loved him,” his brother told Morning Report. Family members are convinced that, had he not been taken by police on the morning of Sunday 23 February, he would still be alive. Mr Taitoko was taken following complaints by neighbours, and against the wishes of family members who were with him. A police officer held him to the ground with a knee on his neck for close to half an hour while waiting for reinforcements. He arrived at the Manukau police station around 1am, and by 5am was found dead.

Initial police reports on Monday 24 February described an “assessment” Mr Taitoko received from a doctor once in custody. By the time of a press conference later that day it turned out that there had been no medical assessment of Mr Taitoko’s health at all. A doctor “viewed” him through the window of a cell door and no assessment was made. Facing questioning about this discrepancy in reports, Counties Manukau Superintendent John Tims showed staggering levels of callous arrogance. “I guess it’s a play on words” he responded to Checkpoint’s Mary Wilson, insisting that “assessed” had many meanings.

The difference between a medical assessment and a glance into a cell from its outside is more than a “play on words.” A young man is dead.

The facts in this case are not yet clear, but Mr Taitoko’s death raises serious questions. Why was he removed from his home? What happened in the hours he was at Manukau station? Why, if he was too aggressive to be examined initially, was a doctor never called later during his detention? On what legal basis did the police justify taking him away? Why did police tell Mr Taitoko’s brother he was being taken to “detox” when he was then put in cells? What injuries did he sustain in custody?

Whatever the specific circumstances of the tragedy and loss for Mr Taitoko’s family, his death is the product of a wider culture. The “tough on crime” talk and anti-Maori action of the era of mass incarceration plays out across the country in confrontations between the police and the poor.

Worrying patterns are visible. Between 27 and 30 people, almost half of them Maori, have died in police custody in the last decade. A quarter of these deaths followed police restraint. Over half of the people who died in custody, according to Independent Police Conduct Authority statistics, had been assessed as being at no risk, and close to 30% had not undergone risk evaluation.

Mr Taitoko’s family are looking for answers. Their questions go to the heart of New Zealand’s criminal injustice system.