Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bungling British Bobbies again

During the riots of 2011, Leslie Austin turned Good Samaritan as others looted shops and vandalised property.

He led an elderly woman to safety and searched a smoke-filled building for trapped inhabitants, with police thanking him for his efforts three times.

But, despite his public-spirited bravery, Mr Austin suffered months of misery after the Metropolitan Police mistakenly put his photograph on a ‘Wanted’ poster – and failed to remove it despite numerous complaints.

Now the 49-year-old has launched a libel case against the police, seeking up to £50,000 in damages for what he says was a serious smear on his character which almost cost him his job and led to him enduring abuse.

Mr Austin, from Hackney, East London, has served on a number of voluntary bodies as well as working for Hackney Homes, helping to manage council estates.

According to his legal claim, submitted at the High Court, he had just finished work one day in early August, 2011, when one of the worst waves of riots Britain had seen for years began. Unable to drive home from work because of the disorder, Mr Austin set off on foot.

When he saw a distressed woman in her 70s from one of the council estates he managed, he helped her to find her way home through the turmoil.

He then spotted a bus driver, whose vehicle had been attacked by rioters, who was unable to drive on because of debris in the road. Mr Austin reassured him and moved the obstacles.

As the riot grew in intensity he saw a terrified woman clutching a baby in the window of a building as a torched car burned outside. Realising she feared the flames would spread, he went in to help.

Once she was safely outside he scoured the premises, despite thickening smoke making breathing difficult, banging on doors to see if anyone needed to evacuate.

According to his legal claim: ‘On three separate occasions police officers thanked him for his assistance.’

But although Mr Austin escaped any injury, he says his real ordeal was yet to begin – when at the start of May 2012 the police issued a ‘Wanted’ poster with his photograph on it.

Under the heading ‘Identity Sought’, it declared: ‘Police in Hackney are appealing for the public’s help in identifying those involved in the disorder during August 2011.’

Mr Austin’s photograph was featured among those of a number of suspects. But he only found out when he went into a Tesco and an assistant told him he was pictured on a poster in the foyer. His image was also on the police website, where it remained for six weeks.

Alarmed, he swiftly visited Hackney police station to make clear his actions during the riots.

Mr Austin claims he was told the posters would be removed within two hours, and after his bosses demanded proof of his innocence, officers provided a letter making clear he was eliminated from inquiries.

Detective Sergeant Ian Coleman said at the time: ‘The public-spirited attitude of this member of the public is outstanding and I apologise on behalf of the Met for any distress caused.’

Yet Mr Austin says the ‘Wanted’ image remained on display for more than three months, until a year after the riots. It also appeared in a local newspaper. He is seeking damages of up to £50,000 for libel and an injunction to stop police publishing any more defamatory allegations against him.

Original report here

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