Sir Ian Blair, the former Metropolitan Police commissioner, wrote a piece in The Times this weekend headlined "Ian Tomlinson is our Rodney King moment". A warning from such a figure of authority must be taken seriously.
There are obvious similarities. In 1992 four white LAPD officers were acquitted after they were filmed beating King, a 25-year-old black man. Last week a Metropolitan police officer was acquitted after he was filmed shoving and striking Tomlinson, a 47-year-old newspaper seller who collapsed and died shortly afterwards. Both cases involved videos of policemen that many people thought made them look guilty, but that were then viewed differently in the law courts.
There the similarities end. The LA acquittal sparked six days of mass rioting in which more than 50 people died and 2,000 were injured. After the Tomlinson trial, there is anger and talk of civil action, but so far no rioting. But surely the man who was the most senior policeman in Britain wouldn't make such a comparison without good reason. If he says this is our Rodney King moment, we had better brace ourselves for trouble.
He accompanies the warning with a prediction of "awkward consequences" for policing and the need for a "new compact about how police officers deploy lawful force", whatever that means. The subtext of the piece is that we would generally be better off if Sir Ian was still in charge.
But this is the same Met chief who in 2008 was accused by Sir Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, of "completely misunderstanding" the law. Sir Ian had called for celebrities to face a jury if they were caught on film apparently snorting cocaine. He made the much-derided plea after spending months failing to bring a case against Kate Moss following her notorious powder-snorting video. Sir Ian seemed to believe that an alleged offence that his officers couldn't find grounds to prosecute, could somehow be proved beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Finding novel approaches to tackling drug use was a recurring theme of Sir Ian's tenure. In 2006, he revealed that smartly dressed Met officers had been posing as drug dealers in a sting operation aimed at catching middle class cocaine users. It is not known how many people were caught in the stings, but as possession of cocaine is routinely dealt with by caution, it seems unlikely the crime of trying to buy non-existent drugs from pretend dealers will have led to many convictions.
What was significant was the timing of that revelation. It came as Sir Ian was desperately trying to stop people discussing comments he had made about the killing of Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. In an effort to demonstrate that the media was "institutionally racist", Sir Ian had contrasted the case with crimes involving non-white victims, saying that "almost nobody" understood why the murders became such a big story.
Another highlight of Sir Ian's time at the top was when he faced accusations of a cover-up over the shooting by his officers of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes. Sir Ian managed to refute the accusations, but his lack of grip of the facts in the aftermath of the shooting was quite something to behold. It left nobody in doubt that organising a cover-up would have been well beyond his capabilities.
Sir Ian - now kicked upstairs as Baron Blair of Boughton - does not say exactly what trouble we should expect from our Rodney King moment. He just leaves the warning hanging there for us to ponder. But whilst talking up such a sensitive topic by comparing it to a case that sparked widespread civil unrest is certainly irresponsible, it must be seen in context. Sir Ian's time in charge of the Met was so gaffe-laden that it will mostly be remembered for his bravery in facing down repeated and ever more strident calls for his resignation.
Thankfully now, it doesn't matter how many riots he predicts. Nobody is really listening.
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