On 1st April 2009, Ian Tomlinson was returning home from his days work as a newspaper seller. En route, he was knocked to the floor by a police officer. Minutes later he collapsed and died. The incident was caught on camera. 16 months later, after an extensive investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service has announced the case will not be put forward for criminal prosecution. As a family grieves and a country looks on astonished, how are we going to start holding the police to account for their behaviour on the beat?
Cause and EffectThere is a risk attached to watching CCTV/camera footage of a short snap of an incident. People do feel that they are eye witnesses to an event if they see only some footage of it, despite the fact that the footage is simply a small window into an incident and not the full picture. No one is disputing that. But this argument bears absolutely no relevance in this case. No one, not even the police, is denying that Ian Tomlinson:
a) Was entirely innocent and no part of the G20 protests that day
b) Presented no threat to the police or anyone
c) Was knocked violently to the ground by PC Simon Harwood of Scotland Yards Territorial Support team
Quite regardless of whether the man then died or not, this is assault. Can one even conceive of a volte-face circumstance where a police officer was walking along and a civilian ran up behind them, knocked them to the ground with a baseball bat and no charges were pressed?
Sadly, this is truly the thin end of the wedge in the dark side of the UK police force. There have been 954 deaths in police custody since 1990 and not one officer charged or event tried. If one were feeling inflammatory, one might suggest the police have got so complacent in getting away with killing people in the silence and privacy of the cells. That they are upping the ante somewhat and taking their brutality to the streets.
One thing is for sure, they’re doing it and they are getting away with it, and it’s often the most vulnerable in society that they are picking off.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil
On 21st August 2008, a mentally ill man named Sean Rigg suffered a breakdown at his supported hostel in Brixton. Sean was 40 years old and physically fit despite his mental health problems. He had been taken into mental care by police officers before and was known as vulnerable.
He left the hostel in an emotionally disturbed state and members of the hostel made 6 calls to 999 in a bid to raise the alarm and have Sean transported to the nearest hospital for treatment. A member of the public also dialled 999 after seeing Sean in such a state. At about 7pm, Sean was picked up by police, charged with a public order offense, handcuffed and taken to the station in a bobby van. The van arrived at the station at 7.30pm, but Sean collapsed during the transfer from van to station, semi clothed. He was pronounced dead at hospital in the following hours.
An inquest, an appeal to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), house of commons questions by MP Sadiq Khan and tireless efforts later....no result , no prosecution, not even so much as a cause of death for the family and friends of Sean Rigg.
Furthermore, the family of Sean Rigg have been fed a string of conflicting reports on the nature of Sean’s death. One of the sinister aspects of the case was the absence of any CCTV footage from the station. Intially the police denied that there were any cameras on the premises, then once the family had been to the station and seen the camera overlooking the area where Sean would have been brought in, the station announced that the camera hadn’t worked for some time.
However, once referred to the IPCC it was discovered that there were both CCTV and audio taken of Sean's arrest and arrival at Brixton police station.
Months of investigation and it was concluded that there was no obvious cause of injury leading to Sean's death.
The family continues to search for the truth.
Nearly two years later the Rigg family are no closer to finding out how and why Sean died.
In 2005, 43 year old Faisal al-Ani was arrested in Southend on Sea town centre while suffering from an acute psychotic illness. Police stated he had collapsed after walking into the station and died. However, CCTV footage of the arrest showed Mr al-Ani being taken to the ground in a major struggle involving multiple officers, being pinned to the floor for five minutes with a number of officers on his back and a foot in his neck, and later footage showed him being carried unconscious into the police station, not walking.
Despite all of this, after referral to the CPS, no charges were to be brought against any officer involved. This is all the more bizarre considering they found that:
“Medical reports indicate that Mr Al-Ani died as the result of a combination of factors, principally an underlying heart problem associated with a struggle and restraint.”
Therefore one could surely conclude that had Mr al-Ani been treated as a mental patient and not a criminal he may well have not died that day.
So, in all of the above cases, the defense has been based on the lack of evidence in terms of CCTV or witnesses, or even when an incident has been witnessed first hand or caught on camera, there is an undermining of the link between the incident with the police officer and the cause of death of the subject.
As in the case of Ian Tomlinson where pathologist Freddy Patel, under inspection by the GMC for four incompetent autopsies and subsequently struck off the Home Office approved list stated that Ian's cause of death was heart attack.
The second pathologist found that he had infact died of internal bleeding caused by blunt force trauma in combination with liver cirrhosis.
A third pathologist agreed with the findings of the second pathologist.
Yet the opinion of one discredited pathologist was enough to see the case dropped.
One might therefore expect the case of Jean Charles de Menezes to have been open and shut. An innocent man shot seven times in the head while sitting on a tube train waiting to go to work, by police officers who had mistaken him for a suicide bomber.
However, in this case, firstly the media were told the man was of Arabic decent, wearing a backpack, had run from police into the carriage and the police had no choice but to shoot him.
Later, we find he is Brazilian, no police chase occurred, infact de Menezes wasn’t aware he was being followed until after he had taken his seat on the tube, and he had stopped to pick up a Metro as he ambled through the station to the train as CCTV footage later showed.
However, no criminal charges of personal culpability were ever made against police officers involved in the incident. Despite eleven shots being fired in 30 seconds, seven of which hit him in the head, one in the shoulder.
So, what will it take for a police officer to be charged when they break the law in the same way a civilian is?
There are people working tirelessly to hold to account the people responsible for the deaths of not only Ian Tomlinson, Sean Rigg, Faisial al-Ani, Jean Charles de Menezes but all the others. The important thing in most of these cases is that the police officers are human beings. Where a genuine mistake has been made, the person needs to be held to account under their responsibility as a police officer. That responsibility should be accepted and administered with proportionality and understanding. Where an act of brutality has taken place, the same responsibility must be administered with a large audience so people know they are safe and that when the police pick them up, in error or otherwise, that they are not inherently at risk of death.
These cases need to come before the coutrs of the law, not police inquiries and internal disciplinary proceedings. If I shot someone, I wouldnt go through a grievance procedure, I'd go to court. Same deal for the police when they cross the line.
Public trust in the police is critical. We are the polices number one source of crime prevention. If we can’t feel safe, and on the same team, there is something fundamentally missing and we are all less safe.
How to Make a Difference
Watch and promote the film Injustice which seeks to tell the untold story of deaths in prison primarily among ethnic minority men since 1969
Lend support to the family campaign for justice for Sean Rigg