Monday 23 July 2012

If Not PC Harwood, Then Who? If Not Now, Then When?

The Tomlinson family in 2011 lay flowers at the spot where Ian died on Cornhill in the City of London
Last week I spend part of my break from work in an airless room on the second floor of Southwark Crown Court with the Tomlinson family, nervously awaiting the jury's verdict in the trial of Metropolitan Police constable Simon Harwood. Newham Monitoring Project has been providing behind-the-scenes practical support to Ian Tomlinson's family since not long after his death and, having been involved in discussions about how to best respond to the eventual trial verdict, I went along to show some solidarity.

I therefore know that the trial's outcome when it finally arrived was particularly crushing. We had foolishly convinced ourselves that the delays meant at worst a hung jury and a mistrial, even those of us already deeply sceptical about the chances of the legal system holding individual officers to account. That Harwood would eventually walk free after four days of delibersation by jury members was just devastating.

Reflecting on the reprecussions of the trial and its outcome, I've been thinking about the scarcity of 'windows of opportunity': those periods, often very brief, when Britain's secretive, hermetic police forces are dragged towards some kind of change by events beyond their control. The most notable was the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report in 1999, which was followed by a window of opportunity to create lasting reform that lasted for perhaps three years before eventually closing.

A decade later, the aftermath of the London G20 protests in 2009 and the intense scrutiny of public order policing after Ian Tomlinson's death led to the opening of another window. In the months that followed, senior officers were forced to demonstrate that they were actually 'learning lessons' instead of just repeatedly talking about doing so. This was driven by public disgust at video images of the beating of protesters and, most importantly, by footage of the casual brutality by PC Simon Harwood towards one passer-by, a newspaper seller trapped in thw wrong place by police lines who subsequently collapsed and died after he had been assaulted.

There is little doubt too that popular revulsion about Ian's death was intensified by the subsequent appearance that the police had been caught trying to cover up their actions. Had it not been for the Guardian's release of video captured by American investment manager Christopher La Jaunie, it is likely that Ian's death would have even been investigated at all.

The result was a period of almost eighteen months when the police in public order situations seemed to go out of their way to be friendly to protesters. However, this policy of 'adapting to protest' (the name of a July 2009 report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary) started to disappear with the police response to student demonstrations of November 2010 and, as new piece of research by the Network for Police Monitoring that appears this Wednesday will show, the window of opportunity had closed completely with the appointment in September 2011 of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the advocate of a more intolerant 'total policing' stance towards protesters.

Looking back on the months that followed the outcry over the policing of the G20 protests, it seemed at the time that the ability of citizens to film police misconduct and violence might provide a new way to outflank the systemic failures of police accountability and complaints investigation. We all now had the tools to become evidence-gatherers and the power of captured images, graphically showing the extent of police violence against demonstrators, might lead to a greater wariness amongst police officers that might in turn lead to a moderation of their behaviour.

Furthermore, it appeared that the specific evidence of the events that led to Ian Tomlinson's death might finally break the incomprehensible statistic that, after 950 deaths in police custody since 1990, nine that had led inquest juries to record verdicts of 'unlawful killing', no officer had ever been successfully prosecuted.

Whilst there remain compelling reasons to continue gathering as much evidence of police misconduct as possible, we now know that video, no matter how graphic, is simply not enough. We know too that families still have to battle against an institutional unwillingness to see the death of their loved ones as a crime and that there are other obstacles, such as an apparent casual disregard for forensic evidence when an investigation involves the conduct of a police officer.

Now we have the verdict in the trial of Simon Harwood and my worry is that this, alongside the closure of the window of opportunity after G20 and the growing antipathy within the police towards any form of public dissent, sends a clear message. It says that officers have little to fear from either public scrutiny or the courts and that the culture of impunity that exists within their ranks can and will remain unchanged. Far from moderating behaviour, it gives a green light to an even more violent, confrontation interpretation of the new 'total policing' strategy.

Even if Harwood is eventually disciplined and thrown out of the Metropolian Police, I still think the injustice suffered by the Tomlinsons is a huge setback of this sort of proportion. After all, I know from conversations I've had over the last few days that campaigners on the issues of deaths in police custody and of misconduct, violence and abuse by police officers, in my case for almost twenty years, have been repeatedly asking ourselves the same questions over the weekend.

If not PC Simon Harwood, then who? If not now, then when?


Europe's No 1 Anti Ryanair Campaigner John Foley.... said...

Firstly i wish to say,respect to this blogger for such an important post.
What happened to Ian was quite shocking and for a police officer to walk free is very sad and wrong.
What is more shocking is that this corrupt police officer used is head to move from one force to other when he did wrong and police authorities turned a blind eye to this.
If the police would have done their job properly and vetted this corrupt officer, Ian would still be alive..
My own view is Police are not impartial to any kind of protest and even the general public are at risk,involved with protests or not as in Ian's case.
God bless the whole family and friends.

Digger said...

If there is no right, in practice, even to peaceful protest (or to live in an arbitary kettle area)why not flood all local politicians, police chiefs etc with written protest by email and snail mail?

If a court finds you can neither protest by demonstration NOR by mail, we may as well leave the country. And the establishment may as well arm the police, because that will be the end of any chance of policing by consent.

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