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Reflections on the Acquittal of PC Harwood- and the Death of Ian Tomlinson

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On hearing the recent news that PC Simon Harwood was acquitted of the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson, I experienced a mixture of angry disbelief and weary resignation. A part of me somehow expected this sort of mind-boggling outcome in keeping with so many other high-profile police trials, although another part couldn't believe that such a verdict would be reached in a court with a jury. It was particularly distressing to consider the effects of this judgment on the Tomlinson family.

The case in question holds particular emotional power for me given that, a little over three years ago, on 1 April 2009 at the G20 protest in London, I saw Tomlinson after he had collapsed in a street near the Bank of England. Friends of mine and a medical student tried to help him while others nearby called an ambulance. We were soon moved away by the police, who formed a circle around him.

The following day I was devastated to discover that he had died that night. I was further shocked to find that certain elements of the press were having a field day implying that protesters were responsible for his passing, and painting the police as those who had come to provide him succour, impeded by a thuggish public. Disappointingly, aspects to this narrative appeared to have been encouraged by a police statement released the night before. In one memorable case, the Evening Standard related that the police had been "pelted with bricks as they [helped]" Mr Tomlinson, a statement that formed the title for a double-page feature with a photograph of a rowdy-looking crowd in front of a cordon of cops. The Standard piece added: "police were bombarded with bricks, bottles and planks of wood" as they sought to assist Tomlinson.

Reading such claims erroneously stated as fact introduced me to a lasting sense of powerlessness and frustration at the way this man's death was responded to by the police and some members of the press. If it's not too much of a digression from the news of the trial verdict, I'd like to revisit some examples below.

Regarding the aforementioned news reports, I knew them to be totally inaccurate. When the police had surrounded Tomlinson, I witnessed one or two plastic bottles being thrown from deep within a crowd of people who can't have been aware of what was going on and who were immediately castigated by others nearby. There were no bricks or planks, there was no savage bombardment. A Times investigation of available evidence came to this conclusion also.

The Evening Standard piece, and many others published in the wake of the protest, insisted on an implicit or outright condemnation of protesters in all respects including in relation to Mr Tomlinson's death. That is, until the careful investigative journalism of Paul Lewis and others at The Guardian produced a crucial piece of footage that clearly displayed Tomlinson being brought to the ground by a police officer in riot gear. It contradicted initial police claims that they had had no contact with Tomlinson.

Prior to the video being made available to the public, police advised journalists that speculation about "whether Mr Tomlinson had any contact with officers... "upset the family" and were told that "his family were not surprised to hear what had happened" to Mr Tomlinson (i.e that he had died from a "heart attack").

The family later thanked the press for "bringing crucial evidence to light" and subsequently complained that they believe they were seriously misled by the police. One statement by Tomlinson's stepson Paul King details a series of serious allegations:

"We feel that there has been a cover-up from the start. The first statement from the police was that they were trying to save Ian's life while protesters were throwing missiles at them. Then the police liaison officer told us Ian died of natural causes. After the video came out, the City of London Police investigator told us that it may have been a protester in disguise who assaulted Ian. Now it has come to light that a senior officer in the Metropolitan police has given the investigation misleading information. We are asking the IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Commission] for a full report on what looks like a cover-up."

A protester in disguise? Such a suggestion (one that was utterly baseless) was surely an act of desperation. The police do appear to have been reticent to admit that they had contact with Tomlinson until it was impossible not to do so.

Such an impression is compounded by the fact that it later emerged that the testimony of three constables had not been brought to the attention of the IPCC when they were seeking all available information in the days immediately after Tomlinson's passing. The officers had reported to senior figures in the Metropolitan Police that they saw the assault on Ian Tomlinson at the time.

There are many other aspects to the handling of the case which are disturbing, too many to enlist in full. Yet, much of that sense of justice being tortuously deterred was relieved by the unanimous ruling by a inquiry jury last year that Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed.

Then last week's odd ruling. The two verdicts seem contradictory and appear to make absolutely no sense. How can a man have been unlawfully killed, and yet no-one be held responsible for it?

Bearing this in mind, it is interesting to note a statement made by the Tomlinson family's lawyer, in which a perceptive and powerful observation was made about similar cases:

It is a terrible truth that in the last 30 years there have been over 1,000 deaths in custody and after contact, there have been many unlawful killing verdicts but there is not one case of an officer convicted for manslaughter.

That's quite a worrying state of affairs, one that behoves us to think about whether something needs to change. Statistical probability alone dictates that serious crimes may have been enacted with impunity by members of the force in at least some of those cases over the past three decades. There's also an argument to be made for an investigation into why no condemning inquiry verdicts have produced police convictions in that time.

Looking at recent reports about some of the information not made available to the jury, one cannot help but feel simultaneously that the Tomlinsons are right to pledge to continue to seek justice and that, if these certain facts had been made available to the court, the ruling may have been different. The fact that Harwood's disturbing disciplinary record was treated as inadmissible evidence and was not made known to the jury meant that the court did not hear that Harwood had received 10 complaints from members of the public over twelve years. Some complaints involved allegations that he had "punched, throttled, kneed, threatened and unlawfully arrested people" in the past.

According to Paul Lewis' latest Guardian piece, Harwood's disciplinary files "filled five lever-arch folders" and recorded that a fellow officer had "complained that Harwood grabbed a suspect by the throat, punched him twice in the face and pushed him into a table, causing it to break."

The Crown Prosecution Service advised the judge at the recently-concluded trial that in "two of the disciplinary matters he was accused of using heavy-handed tactics against the public when they presented no threat". Regardless, Justice Fulford declined to reveal this information to the jury. It has also emerged that the Metropolitan Police tried to prevent Harwood's file from being made available to the lawyers of the Tomlinson family at a pre-inquest hearing in February last year on grounds that were eventually dismissed.

Another issue that bears consideration is the matter of evidence lost in the days immediately following Tomlinson's death. Inquest, a UK charity, pointed out that, as the IPCC did not undertake an independent investigation into Tomlinson's death until seven days after it occurred, "the potential for the loss, suppression and/or distortion of crucial forensic evidence" during that time was heightened greatly. Thus, important material that could have been gathered to establish more clearly what happened that night was not. It seems that the police did not want to treat Tomlinson's death as suspicious until it was too late, despite having had good reason to do so, as demonstrated above.

This may, of course, be due to any number of factors and does not necessarily mean that any conspiracy occurred. However, the direct result of such flawed decision-making appears to have left in its wake an evidential and legal lacuna through which, it seems to me, Harwood may have been rescued from being deemed criminally responsible for Tomlinson's death beyond a reasonable doubt.

Having said the above, and having honestly disclosed my feelings and connections to this story, I leave it to the reader to make up their own mind about the justice of this week's ruling.

Around the Web

Death of Ian Tomlinson - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ian Tomlinson | UK news | The Guardian

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