It’s been a long, arduous journey for Sukhdev Reel. In 1997, she lost her son Ricky Reel to what she says was racist murder on the banks of the Thames in the British town of Kingston-Upon-Thames.
Despite the family’s pleas, the local police did not conduct further investigation into the case and wrote it off as an accident. Then, in 2014, Sukhdev learnt that she and her family had been spied upon for years and her name appeared in 10 undercover police reports because the Reels had spoken out against the police and demanded an investigation into Ricky’s death.
It was like adding salt to a gaping wound.
Ricky was a 20-year-old student when he disappeared while on a night out with friends. They had been attacked by two white youths shouting, “Pakis go home.” The friends ran in different directions; while others reached home, Ricky didn’t.
A week later, his body was found in the Thames. The police maintained that he must have drowned after falling in the river while going to the area to urinate but the family demanded an investigation. They said the police didn’t take his death seriously because they were Asian.
The police denied the charge, but the long-delayed inquiry into abuses in undercover policing operations – the first hearings of the case began last month – suggest that there were several lapses on the part of the police. Along with the Reels, the other families who were spied upon include the parents of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man killed by a white gang in London in 1993. In 2013, former police spy Peter Francis said he had spied on Stephen’s parents in order to discredit them. Many other similar spying cases are part of the ongoing inquiry.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Sukhdev has been living in the UK since the 1960s. She had been working as a Senior Housing (Homeless) Officer with the London borough of Hounslow when Ricky’s death turned the family’s life upside down. She has two other children who unfortunately faced the same callous behaviour from the police as their parents.
When the family reported Ricky missing, the Kingston police officer suggested he might have run away with a girlfriend or boyfriend because the family had arranged a marriage for him. Ricky’s siblings – his sister Tish was 17 and brother was 11 years old – were given the news bluntly in the absence of their parents: “We’ve found your brother’s body at the bottom of the river.”
Sukhdev, who is currently retired, says, “We were racially stereotyped and not given the level of investigation Ricky’s death should have received, because we are Asian and it was assumed by the police that we would not question them.”
eShe spoke to Sukhdev about her case, the fresh trials about police spying on citizens demanding justice, and racism in the UK. The interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you discover that police are spying on your family? What do you think are their motives in doing so?
The police told Sunil Grover of the Monitoring Group (an anti-racist charity), who has been supporting our family and the Justice for Ricky Reel Campaign, that they wanted to talk to us. So a meeting was arranged with the family, Sunil Grover and John McDonnell, our Member of Parliament, in his office. We hoped we would get answers, maybe a new lead, but instead, we were then told that we were subjected to “covert intrusion”, which is spying. We believe we came under their radar because we kept on asking questions about the investigation not being conducted properly. No answers were given – we, our family, were just considered collateral damage.
We questioned the police, demonstrated peacefully when we realised the police were not investigating Ricky’s death with an open mind. They didn’t like that an Asian family were standing up for themselves and questioning them – so they spied on us. We were told by the police that they have files where there is proof that spying took place. We were also given a cover name of one of the officers who spied on us and were told that there were others too.
We have no idea why they spied on us. We were not doing anything illegal. Our campaign was always peaceful. We are angry and hurt that they breached our human rights and invaded our privacy at a time we were asking them to investigate Ricky’s murder. The resources that they should have spent on investigating Ricky’s murder were spent on spying. Thus we have not yet got justice for my son.
It is shocking that in doing no more than seeking accountability by lawful means and trying to get justice for my Ricky, we became the focus of unwarranted suspicion and spying.
Twenty-three years have passed since your son’s death; do you feel racism in the UK is lesser now compared with then?
I would like to believe it but reading and hearing about so many cases where people were subjected to violence or threats of violence simply due to their colour or religion, I think it is on the rise.
In the wake of Covid, we know racial crimes had increased exponentially, and some of the main victims are BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) doctors, nurses and health professionals on the front line. It is on the rise, and we have the opportunity now to do something about it.
The usual impression is that hate crime usually happens in industrial areas, but your son was found dead on the Thames. Is it therefore different from typical hate crimes?
Hate crimes can happen anywhere. It is just people’s perception that hate crimes happen in industrial areas or poor council areas. This is just a myth. Ricky died in Kingston-Upon-Thames, a hugely affluent area. Racism transcends all classes, all socio-economic backgrounds.
Do you suspect institutional discrimination against Asians by policemen in this case?
Yes, it started from the very beginning. Institutional racism affects the entire force, hence the word “institutional”. The police failed to take my concerns about Ricky’s disappearance seriously. They were told of the racial attack by the friends who were with Ricky that night but they did not take it seriously. No active investigation took place. It was left to the family and supporters to find clues or proof of what happened on October 14, 1997.We found CCTV cameras, which either they were not aware of or did not bother to locate. They destroyed one camera without bothering to view it. We were giving them evidence that they destroyed. We spent seven days and nights in Kingston seeking witnesses, appealing for people to come forward. This included printing our own leaflets, showing to people in late-night buses, speaking to cab drivers, shopkeepers, train stations, clubs, pubs. We did not see even one officer doing that. Why were we left to do our own investigation?
When we went to report Ricky as a missing person at Kingston Police station, an officer told us that maybe Ricky doesn’t want to come home, maybe the parents were preparing an arranged marriage for him as he thought is common in Asian culture. He later winked and said that Ricky may be gay and thus may have run away from home.
The racial incident that took place and was witnessed by Ricky’s friends was totally ignored by the police. We were pushed from one police station to another as both were saving their own resources.
What are the long-term measures that you think the UK government must take to tackle hate crimes and to ensure swift arrests of those engaged in it?
They need to regain public confidence. This will not happen till there is accountability and transparency – and we do not have these yet. The revelations about covert spying are yet another blow to victims and their families. The police need to take action where necessary straight away irrespective of victim’s colour or religion. Talks about the impact of hate-crime should start with schools where, as we have seen, quite a few children have been subjected to violence or name-calling. This education is necessary to stop race attacks or killings and hopefully stop this at a very early stage.
Your daughter Tish said she became a lawyer because of Ricky’s case. How difficult has it been as a family to process this traumatic event?
It is something you never overcome – and it is near impossible to overcome without knowing who killed Ricky, without the police offering to reinvestigate. All we can do is keep pressing for answers, in the hope if something like this were to happen again, the police don’t treat that family or victim with the racism and disregard that they treated us.
As a family we work together to try and create a change. The family live with this traumatic loss every day and we are unable to grieve for Ricky until justice is delivered. There is no peace in our minds or hearts as Ricky’s killers are still out there and the fear is that they may strike again and somebody else may become their victim. All this happened because more resources were spent on spying rather than investigating Ricky’s case and this has exacerbated our pain, grief and loss.
Do you have any expectations from the Indian government to help in this case?
I am a British Citizen and have not contacted the Indian Government for any help. I have no doubt they are aware of this case. If they offered help, I would not turn it away. There is strength in numbers.
You have spoken about the Stephen Lawrence case. Do you feel your community (Indian) did not support you as much as his community (blacks) supported his family in demanding justice for him?
It is true that a lot of the black community supported the Stephen Lawrence case. It was the right thing to do and I believe that every community should support all cases like this and other victims irrespective of their colour.
The Asian community as a body was not as vocal 23 years ago when Ricky died. Now the community is stronger, but we need to prove to the authorities, who still don’t take us seriously, that we will stand together. We have new social-media platforms that we can use to make out views known. Let’s use them.
What kind of support have you received so far from groups that want to fight hate crimes?Suresh Grover from the Monitoring Group and my MP, John McDonnell, have been with us from day one. Without their support we would not be where we are today. As people became aware of the Justice for Ricky Reel Campaign lots of supporters joined us and some other groups began supporting us. It is the supporters who pushed the campaign and it became very well known.
Neville Lawrence (father of Stephen Lawrence) also supported our campaign and we attended and spoke at various meetings and conferences. I also attended the McPherson Inquiry and supported the Lawrence family. We also gave our submission to that Inquiry. We are now core participants in the Undercover Policing Inquiry.
We also got other kinds of support. Four well-known artists decided to stand up and share Ricky’s story through music. These four friends heard my sighs, cries and plea for justice. It is a beautiful story that tells everyone what we have been going through.
We are very grateful for the public support we have received and many of those supporters, who are truly wonderful people, have become friends and continue to support us. We now have a petition. Please sign it and share it.First published in eShe magazine