Today, an inquest in London has determined that Ian Tomlinson was unlawfully killed by a police officer during protests at the time of a G20 meeting in the city two years ago.
Tomlinson was not involved in the protests, but his route home from work took him close to the Bank of England, a focal point for demonstrators. Apparently feeling that he was moving too slowly, a police constable, Simon Harwood, struck Tomlinson with his baton and pushed him to the ground. He got up again, but died a few minutes later from what today’s inquest has determined was internal bleeding caused by the “excessive and unreasonable”, as well as illegal, actions of PC Harwood.
The verdict is important not only because it provides Tomlinson’s family with official recognition of the circumstances of his death, but because it demonstrates that officers policing demonstrations in the UK cannot safely consider themselves able to behave with impunity.
The policing of demonstrations in the UK is not without its controversies. Take, for example, the question of “kettling”, where, apparently on almost any pretext, the police pen demonstrators in a given location for hours at a time, until officers get fed up with the smell of them wetting themselves. But I don’t think that Ian Tomlinson’s case is evidence that the British police are out of control. If we consider the comparable cases of anti-globalisation protests in Seattle in 1999, when police were almost completely unprepared, or Genoa in 2001, where the conduct of some elements within the police can only be described as sinister, it is clear that the UK has learnt a lot and has a lot to teach. I know from my own experience of demonstrations in the UK that policing is, at its best, formidably efficient and generally able to respond to challenges to its authority – this is a key point – without the need for anybody to be hurt.
It would obviously be naive to suppose that occasions do not arise where the police are justified in using force. But I get the impression from talking to serving officers that there is a significant, thuggish minority in the ranks who look forward to demonstrations because, quite apart from the overtime, there is the appealing prospect that the opportunity to mete out some casual violence may arise. “It’s good fun to hit people low down as they move away from you,” one told me before a demonstration a few years ago. “You don’t need any justification and there’s no chance of any comeback.”
And I suspect that there may be some quiet toleration, at a tactical level, towards this attitude. After all, if you want to control a crowd, you need to show it who’s boss, and how are you supposed do that if you follow the rule-book?
Some might see signs of a cover-up in the unusual arrangements made for Tomlinson’s initial post mortem. A doctor, Freddy Patel, was appointed from outside the normal Home Office pool of pathologists, and carried out his work without a representative of the Independent Police Complaints Commission being present and, allegedly, without allowing Tomlinson’s family of their right to send a representative. That post mortem found that Tomlinson had died from a heart attack, in contradiction to the two post mortems carried out since, which have concluded that he died from internal bleeding.
Regardless of whether claims of a cover-up are warranted, I don’t think you have to widen your perspective very much to realise that that “show-em-who’s-boss” isn’t likely to lead anywhere very healthy. No doubt this was in the minds of police officers fighting pitched battles during the 1980s miners’ strike, but I defy any serving officer, regardless of political persuasion, to look back on that period with very much pride. In any event, experience and common sense tells us that if you rile a crowd you can expect it to become more difficult to control, not less.
It may be tempting for some to see Simon Harwood as a victim in this story. It might be said that his actions two years ago were not especially unusual or even, comparatively speaking, very shocking. It may well be that he is now in the process of being offered up on a well-meaning liberal altar of responsible but ultimately unrealistic policing. Perhaps we should instead accept that we cannot expect to be policed by Julie Andrews the whole time.
However, it seems to me that this is about a straight choice. Police officers are either accountable or they are not. If Harwood can’t now be brought to book with an about-face from the Crown Prosecution Service and a decision to charge (which they declined to make last year), then that would seem to mean that Ian Tomlinson is instead an acceptable sacrifice in the name the Old Bill’s right to operate without scrutiny.