Sunday, April 12, 2009

Lash out, close ranks – it’s the British police way
‘Police log, Neasden Central police station, 0830 hours: Every available officer to report for emergency riot duty at the G20 summit at the ExCel centre. All officers to be issued with Kalashnikov assault rifles, Tasers and overtime claim forms (PX 74235b) . . . Officers will be issued with guidelines on how to act effectively in the unfortunate event of the demonstrations remaining peaceful.”

Private Eye’s spoof Police Log has for some time satirised the modern British police force as part paramilitary, part social worker – and entirely self-serving. As so often, the best satire turns out to anticipate events, rather than just caricature them. The latest Neasden Central log was published before the G20 demonstrations, and while they were not entirely peaceful, one officer needed more to satisfy his desire to be involved in a violent confrontation.

This was the masked member of the supposedly elite Territorial Support Group whose unprovoked assault on Ian Tomlinson, a 47-year-old father of nine, is now being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). Mr Tomlinson – who was not a demonstrator, but just walking home – suffered a fatal heart attack immediately after the encounter; if the assailant had been anyone other than a policeman “in the course of his duty”, we can be fairly sure that the police would favour a charge of manslaughter against the thug in question.

I imagine that most readers will already have seen the video of the incident, fortuitously captured by a City worker’s mobile phone, but for the benefit of those who haven’t, it shows Mr Tomlinson, who was walking away from the group of policemen, being hit across the back of his legs with a savage blow from a truncheon. This did not have the presumably desired effect of bringing Mr Tomlinson crashing down; so the same officer achieved his pointless purpose by pushing Tomlinson from behind, with maximum force.

Robert Rhodes QC points out – and, as the lawyer who represented the Belgian government against English football hooligans after the Heysel stadium disaster, he knows a thing or two about thuggish behaviour – “The really worrying aspect of the police involvement in Ian Tomlinson’s death is that several officers saw [the incident] but just stood by, doing nothing. It is this closing of ranks until the video was published that is likely to be destructive of public confidence in the integrity of the police.”

Until that video emerged, the police had presented themselves to the IPCC’s investigators as Mr Tomlinson’s benefactors: they had had no contact with him before he collapsed, and their medical officers’ subsequent attempt to treat him had been made more difficult by a hail of missiles, a barrage that no independent witness seems able to recall.

In recent years we have become wearily familiar with what the “closing of ranks” can involve, not stopping short of tampering with evidence. This was seen most dramatically in the inquest into the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, when a Special Branch officer, giving evidence behind a screen, admitted that he had deleted a line in his original notes, which had recorded that Cressida Dick, the officer in charge of the operation, said at the time that Menezes “can run onto Tube as not carrying anything”.

This, I’m afraid, is the sort of thing that happens when the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Manual of Guidance on Police Use of Firearms sanctions so-called “conferring over notes” after a fatality. The IPCC has on three occasions called for this practice to end – in the first instance after the death in 1999 of 46-year-old Harry Stanley, shot by officers who believed he was holding a gun; the late Mr Stanley, a part-time painter and decorator, was in fact walking home from a pub with a table leg tucked under his arm. Mr Stanley had a spent conviction for robbery, while the unfortunate Mr Tomlinson was an alcoholic drifter who seems to have been drunk on the day of his death; but it is not the job of the police, any more than it is of ordinary members of the public, to carry out extrajudicial punishments against sundry shambling scamps.

It’s true that I have experienced none of the undoubted frustrations that mark the working day of the police officer. I am not engaged in the constant struggle to stem the tide of villainy in a legal system that inevitably affords wicked people the chance of acquittal if a jury remains unconvinced by the prosecution. Yet the people who should be most angered by the excesses of individual officers are the police themselves, as I imagine many are. The less the police are trusted by the public, the more likely it is that juries will disbelieve the honest evidence of a policeman taking the stand in a courtroom.

A friend of mine, who was a Metropolitan policeman in the early 1970s, allegedly a time when the force was much less enlightened and accountable than it is now, rang me up to express his disgust at what had happened to Mr Tomlinson. “I policed rent-a-mob rioting student and anarchist groups,” he said. “So I know all about provocation. But to witness a British policeman, dressed like an Omon trooper [a member of the Russian Special Purpose police unit], with his face obscured, running up and striking a defenceless man from behind makes my blood run cold.”

My friend added that the very video evidence that has prevented Mr Tomlinson’s assailant from getting away with a criminal assault could now itself be prevented: section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, which came into force in February, permits the arrest of anyone taking a photograph or film of the police that is “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. The police will doubtless protest that this new law is not meant to stop “innocent” people taking such film.

Since we have now seen legislation designed to fight terrorism invoked against Icelandic banks, hecklers at Labour party conferences and parents suspected of lying about their place of residence in order to get their children into their preferred school, I think my ex-policeman friend is right to believe that section 76 is also likely to be abused.

In a month when a number of Pakistanis on student visas have been arrested as part of a suspected terrorist plot, it will be argued that the police need all the support we can give them in the fight against people who have no qualms about murdering multitudes of innocents. There is, however, absolutely no connection between what that member of the Territorial Support Group did to Tomlinson and the work of the anti-terrorist branch. Nor should the threat from extreme Islamism be used to justify removing the liberties that are precisely the legal inheritance that distinguishes this country from less fortunate nations.

New Labour has always been contemptuous of that history, being convinced that nothing which predated 1997 – its year zero – is worth preserving. It is probably far too late, but I would beg its latest home secretary, in the short time she has left in the job, to study the founding principles laid down by perhaps the greatest incumbent of her office, Sir Robert Peel, when he created the Metropolitan police: “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent on public approval of police actions . . . Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.”

The City worker who filmed the beating of Ian Tomlinson was acting exactly in that tradition.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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