It’s official. It’s beyond reasonable doubt. On 1 April 2009, newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson was unlawfully killed, dying after a police officer attacked him for no greater crime than trying to get home. The case is now being reviewed by the Crown Prosecution Service, and it’s reasonable to expect that Simon Harwood, the officer responsible, should now face a manslaughter charge.
In fact, we’d argue, he should have faced this nearly two years ago. Normally, when a man dies, and there’s video evidence of a violent attack, a trial would seem to be a no-brainer.
But no one in the Metropolitan Police seemed to fancy that. So instead, they leaned on the Guardian to lay off the story. They released misleading statements to the press, claiming that officers trying to help Tomlinson had been pelted with bottles (not true). They issued a statement on behalf of Tomlinson’s family, claiming “The police are keeping us informed of any developments” (also not true).
And the ostensibly Independent Police Complaints Committee seemed more critical of those reporting the story than of those responsible for it, suggesting there was no truth to claims that Tomlinson had been assaulted by police (go on, guess).
Harwood — the only officer on the film of the attack with a balaclava and no badge number — even went as far as telling the inquest that the incident happened only moments after he was attacked himself. This, he later admitted, was also untrue, and if he tries that trick in front of a criminal court, he’s likely to see ‘intending to pervert the course of justice’ added to the charge sheet.
All in all, the response of Harwood and his colleagues to this mess seemed less about truth or justice, than watching their own backs. The Met even refused to allow Tomlinson’s family to see his body for six days.
The thing is, these guys genuinely do a very difficult job. They have to make split-second decisions in incredibly tense situations. It’s both inevitable, and understandable, that mistakes will be made, and if you think that what they do is easy then you’re a fool.
But when mistakes are made, they have to be faced. When the BBC is criticised for bias or misbehaviour it tumbles into weeks of self-loathing and recriminations as it tries to atone for its mistakes. When the Met is criticised, it denies everything and hopes it’ll go away again.
That’s not acceptable. If the Metropolitan Police can’t admit to its mistakes when they result in a man’s death, even in the face of video evidence, then how are we supposed to trust any of its other decisions? How can we believe that Alfie Meadows did anything to warrant the battering that meant he needed brain surgery? That the decision to break up the “Royal Zombie Flashmob” protest was a matter of security, rather than simply an attempt to crush inconvenient dissent? When a man is arrested for nothing more than possession of his own credit card, how can we be sure that this is for the good of the country, and not — as it appears — for the good of the officers he was filming?
Boris Johnson has called for the “orgy of cop-bashing” to end. But that is to miss the point. Londoners need to believe that the police are on their side. While the police seem more concerned about closing their ranks and protecting their own than about anything as trivial as justice, one has to ask — how can we trust a single thing they say?