SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 128 - May 2009

Anatomy of a police killing

THE IMAGES of the final moments of Ian Tomlinson’s life – walking unsteadily away from a group of police before collapsing – now seem unsettlingly familiar, such has been the scale of the media coverage surrounding his death. These tragic shots deserve to be widely seen and remembered. The manner in which the chain of events leading to his death has slowly emerged, combined with other questions surrounding the policing of the G20 protests, have put the police under the spotlight. The myth of police impartiality has been shattered. Questions about democratic accountability are being raised.

In the run-up to the G20 a conscious effort was made by the police, backed by sections of the media, to exaggerate the threat of violent conflict on the streets of London. This was epitomised by a Metropolitan police superintendent, David Hartshorn, claiming a "summer of rage" was on the cards, with activists "intent on coming onto the streets to create public disorder". It could also be seen on a farcical level in GMTV news coverage, where a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of the mass poll tax demonstration, May Day and other anti-capitalist protests were shown to the soundtrack of The Kaiser Chiefs’, I Predict a Riot!

The intended effect was two-fold. Firstly, it was a blatant attempt to scare off the hundreds of thousands of working-class people from protesting against the politicians, bankers and bosses who helped create the current crisis and are intent on making us pay for it. Secondly, to attempt to legitimise any use of force on the part of the police in advance of the protests.

The day following the 1 April ‘Financial Fools Day’ protests, much was made of the broken windows of RBS bank and other ‘violent protests’, while the first police statement about Ian Tomlinson’s death claimed he had no contact with the police prior to collapsing, despite being caught up (on his way home from work) in a mass-containment area enforced by armed police. This was a deliberate act of misinformation on the part of the Met’s press office.

Mass-containment, or ‘kettling’, is a tactic first used in Britain on the 2001 May Day anti-capitalist protest, when thousands of protestors were detained in Oxford Circus for nine hours. One of those detained, Socialist Party member Lois Austin, took legal action against the police. The High Court and law lords backed the use of this intimidating and provocative tactic. An application by the May Day detainees has now been made to the European Court of Human Rights.

On 3 April, the results of a Home Office autopsy stated that Tomlinson had died of a heart attack. Less than a week later, this was utterly discredited by a second autopsy requested by his family that concluded that he died of massive internal haemorrhaging. Dr Freddy Patel, the pathologist who conducted the first autopsy, has been reprimanded for his conduct on a number of previous occasions. Most damningly, he had released confidential medical information about a man who died in police custody, old information that might have discredited the victim and distracted attention from any police responsibility for his death.

Three witnesses came forward claiming to have seen Tomlinson assaulted by police before he collapsed. While Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) officers were ‘trawling through CCTV footage’ of the incident, the images that have now become so painfully familiar came to light thanks to an American businessman who had recorded the assault on his mobile phone.

The UK is one of the most closely CCTV-monitored countries, the central London network the envy of governments across the world. But the week before the G20, when police were on high alert for ‘violent protestors’, a third of Westminster’s CCTVs were shut down because they "do not fully meet the resolution standard required". Even if the image resolution was not high enough to identify individuals, it could still make out if someone was wearing a police uniform while attacking protestors with batons! Instead, it has been mobile phone photos and videos by protestors and passers-by that have been key to highlighting police violence. Filming police officers is, of course, now illegal under anti-terror legislation.

It soon became clear that it would not be acceptable for the City of London police to carry out the investigation. So the supposedly ‘impartial’ IPCC took control. A complaint made to the IPCC will only be directly investigated if it deems it serious enough, otherwise the IPCC will commission a local police authority to carry out the investigation. That Ian Tomlinson’s death was not considered serious enough is an absolute disgrace. However, a quick glance at the IPCC’s record belies any ‘independent’ facade. Of the 28,000 complaints between 2007-08 just over one in ten was substantiated.

Criticisms have been raised of its over-reliance on ex-police officers as investigators, while a number of incidents of malpractice have come to light. For instance, an IPCC investigation into the violent assault of Babar Ahmad by six officers in 2003 has seen none of the officers disciplined and all bar one still working for the Territorial Support Group (the police unit which oversees the policing of protests). This is despite evidence that the officers had been the subject of previous complaints: "According to documents submitted to the court, four of the officers who carried out the raid on Ahmad’s home had 60 allegations of assault against them – of which at least 37 were made by black or Asian men. One of the officers had 26 separate allegations of assault against him – 17 against black or Asian men". (Guardian, 21 March)

The brutal reality is that Ian Tomlinson was the victim of a police killing. It is also clear that, despite threats of a manslaughter charge against the officer involved, the track record of the IPCC, as well as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), suggests the perpetrators will go free or simply get a ‘rap on the knuckles’.

The thousands who took part in protests against the G20 and the millions who have been disgusted at revelations about his tragic death will not be satisfied by a rubber-stamp report from the IPCC. As Tomlinson’s son stated: "First we were told that there had been no contact with the police, then we were told that he died of a heart attack; now we know that he was violently assaulted by a police officer and died from internal bleeding. As time goes on we hope that the full truth about how Ian died will be made known". The IPCC has now requested a third autopsy. In reality, a genuinely independent commission would have to include representatives from, and be accountable to, protest groups and trade unions.

The police have always flouted legal boundaries in order to ‘uphold the law’. This has been made easier by the raft of repressive laws brought in by New Labour under the cover of the ‘prevention of terrorism’. These laws undermine democratic rights and strengthen police powers. It was under anti-terror legislation that homes of protest organisers were raided in the run-up to the G20. Repressive laws and measures should be immediately revoked. More than that, this raises the need for democratic accountability of the police. It is not only investigations into complaints that should be overseen by ordinary people but also the day-to-day activity of the police, including what forces should be deployed where. This should be in the form of democratically accountable committees that include elected trade unionists and community representatives.

It is precisely because representatives of this system fear that sort of democratic control that some establishment figures have now spoken out against the police. They fear their legitimacy is being undermined. For example, Denis O’Connor, chief inspector of constabulary, has spoken against the G20 operations: "It did not impress me that this was the British way of policing".

The tactics of kettling, violence and intimidation are designed to undermine our right to protest. In a time of increased social unrest as a result of the devastation unleashed by economic crisis and recession the need for workers and young people to fight back and protest will increase. We cannot accept the state’s attempts to undermine our right to do this. We must defend ourselves in the form of well-stewarded protests so as not to leave individual protestors open to assault or intimidation by the police. Ian Tomlinson’s death is a warning which must be heeded. Working-class people’s right to organise and fight back must be defended at all costs.

Greg Maughan


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