Saturday, 21 July 2012

Above the law?

Twelve generations ago, civil wars were fought in England and Scotland over whether the king was above the law or governed by it. Military and political events combined to give the answer that monarchs were governed by the law.

Police and all the other officials of the legal and government systems are governed by the law too. British policing rests on two fundamentals - that it depends on consent; and that the police are citizens subject to the law as other citizens are. They have some special powers, but the exercise of those powers is subject to challenge through the law.

In April 2009, massive protests challenged the G20 summit in London. The police had the job of keeping order and making sure the summit was not disrupted. There were many criticisms of the tactics they used that day, but I don't want to get into that argument.

One person died - Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller who was caught up in the events. he was prevented from returning from his work to the hostel where he was living by the police tactic of "kettling" demonstrators and he pleaded to be let through. One officer pushed him hard in the back. He fell and suffered injuries which caused his immediate collapse and soon after death.

It might never have been established why he fell, had not an American banker who had gone to the demonstration out of curiosity filmed the action. Once it was established that a police action might have caused his death, junior police officers acted very responsibly. One reported to his superior that he might have seen the incident. The superior contacted all his team and asked them what they'd seen - and others reported they'd seen an officer they did not know push the man in the back as he was walking away. The superior passed on this information to his superiors. At the highest levels, though, police tried hard to suppress what had happened. They claimed that police medics while caring fore the dying man had been pelted with missiles by the demonstrators, which they later admitted was false. They tried to get the Guardian newspaper to stop investigating the matter, claiming entirely falsely that Tomlinson's family were anguished by the Guardian's actions (in fact they supported them).

Then an officer, PC Simon Harwood, said he had pushed a man who might have been Tomlinson. This may have been a resonsible act of conscience, or he may have judged he was likely to be indentified (he should have been showing his number but he'd obscured it). Harwood's statements thereafter were contradictory and he should not have been where he was, having been detailed to guard his team's police van some way distant. An inquest found Ian Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed. Harwood was prosecuted for manslaughter (a crime which applies when your actions kill someone, not intentionally, but when you might reasonably be expected to know that there was a risk of death resulting).

PC Harwood has just been acquitted, though there was no doubt he was the officer who pushed Tomlinson, there was medical evidence that Tomlinson's death resulted from his heavy fall and there was no doubt that Tomlinson was walking away and not presenting a threat to anyone.

So - here is a warning. Do not let your back come within pushing distance of a police officer's hand, because he's entitled to push you so you fall down and if you die as a result that's your own fault.

This is not for a moment to question that police officers do a very hard and necessary job, or that in Britain they're mostly polite and responsible (and far more prepared to be argued with than in America, as far as I can judge). The tragic event showed most of the officers near Tomlinson acting responsibly, as they did in reporting what they'd seen.

But after this verdict, I have to ask: are police officers REALLY under the law like you and I are?

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