Hate crime investigation launched following theft of memorial plaque
Detectives are treating the theft of a blue plaque commemorating the life of a black man as a hate crime.
The plaque in memory of David Oluwale, who drowned in 1969 after being “hounded” by police officers, was taken from Leeds Bridge in the city centre within hours of it being unveiled on Monday (April 25).
West Yorkshire Police believes the theft was a “deliberately targeted act” following earlier racist graffiti in the city centre.
The unveiling ceremony, organised by Leeds Civic Trust and supported by the David Oluwale Memorial Association, took place at 5pm and ended two hours later, with the plaque thought to have been removed sometime between 9.30pm and 10pm.
Mr Oluwale’s death resulted in the first successful prosecution of British police officers for involvement in the death of a black person, according to Leeds Civic Trust.
The exact events leading up to Mr Oluwale’s death, in April 1969, have never been fully confirmed. However, two independent witnesses claimed to have seen uniformed police officers chasing him alongside the River Aire, which flows under the bridge, on the night he is thought to have died.
In a landmark case in 1971, the two officers, Sergeant Kenneth Kitching and Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker, who had subjected Mr Oluwale to a long campaign of abuse, were convicted of assault by a jury.
At the unveiling ceremony, Leeds Civic Trust said Chief Superintendent Carl Galvin of West Yorkshire Police “spoke movingly about how his father, a police cadet at the time, was the whistleblower who led to the arrest of the police officers who were found responsible for his hounding and death”.
The plaque reads: “A British citizen, he came to Leeds from Nigeria in 1949 in search of a better life.
“Hounded to his death near Leeds Bridge, two policemen were imprisoned for their crimes.”
West Yorkshire Police confirmed it has launched a hate crime investigation.
Leeds District Commander, Chief Superintendent Damien Miller, said: “It is truly appallingly that someone would remove the plaque commemorating the life of David Oluwale, and we recognise the significant impact that this act will have had on all those involved in keeping David’s memory alive and on the wider community.
“The timing clearly suggests that this has been a deliberately targeted act and we are classing this as a hate crime.
“We are treating this incident very seriously and have detectives from Leeds District CID carrying out extensive inquiries to identify who is responsible and to locate and recover the plaque.
“Leeds Bridge is in a busy area in the heart of the city centre and we would urge anyone who witnessed any suspicious activity or who has any information that could assist the investigation to contact us immediately.”
The Mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, and Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, Alison Lowe, condemned the “hateful” theft of the plaque.
In a joint statement they said: “Hearing the news of this awful theft really saddened and disappointed us that individuals could do such a thing only hours after it was put in place.
“However we agree with Leeds Civic Trust, who helped to organise last night’s special ceremony for the plaque unveiling, that it will not deter us from celebrating and remembering what a historic moment for Leeds and for David Oluwale’s legacy yesterday’s unveiling was.
“We know West Yorkshire Police have launched a hate crime investigation believing this to potentially be a deliberately targeted act.
“We welcome this action and would urge anyone with information to contact the police.
“David’s plaque was and is a continued reminder of our collective responsibilities in calling out racism and promoting diversity. That has only been highlighted even further with this appalling action by thoughtless individuals trying to destroy something that represents everything good about our city.
“We will not let that happen as we both place David’s legacy at the heart of our approach, ensuring that we all learn from the traumas of the past. Equality and Inclusion is at the heart of all we do and that will continue.
“The shadow thrown by this theft will not dim the light of hope created by the plaque that has brought communities together to tackle racism in all its forms. That vital work continues.”
In a joint statement, Leeds Civic Trust, Leeds City Council and the David Oluwale Memorial Association, said: “After such a successful plaque unveiling attended by upwards of 200 people, reports that the blue plaque has been removed from its location on Leeds Bridge are shocking.
“This follows the earlier racist graffiti in the city centre including on the Leeds Civic Trust premises.
“These are cowardly acts from people who are unwilling to debate their views in public.
“The successful unveiling of the plaque shows how far we have come as a city to combat racism. Its theft shows how much more we need to do.”