Harwood is innocent. The jury said so

The case of the cop charged over the death of Ian Tomlinson is symbolic of the confusion at the heart of the British state.

Luke Gittos

Luke Gittos

Topics Politics

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Last week, British police officer Simon Harwood was found not guilty of killing newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson in the course of the G20 protests in London in 2009. The verdict followed an inquest into Tomlinson’s death in 2011 that found he had been unlawfully killed.

Notwithstanding the not-guilty verdict, few commentators were happy to accept that Harwood was an innocent man. Instead, many rushed to provide an explanation as to why the jury had acquitted him. Many blamed the fact that the jury had not been made aware of Harwood’s disciplinary record. In 2005, he had been disciplined for kneeing a suspect while he lay on the ground. In 2008, he was accused of being heavyhanded with a speeding suspect. In 2001, he arrested a driver after becoming embroiled in a ‘road rage’ incident. He was due to face disciplinary proceedings for unlawful arrest and abuse of authority before he retired on ‘medical grounds’. The records had been ruled inadmissible in the trial, presumably because they could provide no insight into whether the force used by Harwood on Tomlinson had been reasonable.

Others have explained the jury’s verdict as a result of society becoming accustomed to brutal policing. Some have gone so far as to describe Tomlinson’s death as ‘symptomatic of an endemic culture of violence at the heart of the policing of protest in Britain’. The Observer said the case underlined the need for ‘ethical reform’ of our police forces, arguing that the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) needed greater ‘teeth, guts, autonomy and drive’ to correct a ‘moral crisis’ at the heart of policing.

First and foremost, such commentary exposes a worrying erosion of the presumption of innocence. We must trust that the jury, having heard the evidence about the force used and the circumstances of the case, made a proper judgement of Harwood’s innocence. Harwood’s disciplinary record is irrelevant. He is an innocent man.

Secondly, it is hard to see how the tragic combination of a testosterone-fuelled copper and a vulnerable, middle-aged man is symptomatic of anything. It is certainly not the case that the police are more brutal than they used to be. A quick look at the Broadwater Farm riots of the 1980s, in which 9,000 police officers waged a violent campaign against the residents of one housing estate in north London, is enough to show that the police today are significantly less ‘brutal’ than they have been. While many point to increasing numbers of deaths in police custody as evidence that the police are more violent today, this ignores the fact that it is a culture of transparency and a desperation to provide accountability that makes these figures available in the first place. The recent plans to elect local police chiefs, announced by UK home secretary Theresa May earlier this year, show how the police are more desperate for public approval than ever before. Make no mistake: the days when police officers acted with impunity with no regard for public relations are over.

While the death of Ian Tomlinson is not symptomatic, it is symbolic. It is a fitting illustration of a more fundamental crisis of authority within the police. Simon Harwood’s lashing out against Tomlinson is merely a more violent manifestation of the incoherence of modern policing which has little to do with ‘brutality’ and more to do with an odd combination of meddling behaviour-management and wild thrashing around in response to disruptions in public order.

Nowhere was this incoherence more evident than in the policing of the G20 protests in 2009. In the run-up to the demonstrations, commentators dutifully published paranoid fearmongering police reports that anticipated high levels of violent disorder and looting. These reports forced the Metropolitan Police to over-police the demonstrations, which turned out to be little more than a ragbag of middle-class students and anti-capitalist protesters. The bizarre practice of ‘kettling’ – where hundreds of officers are employed to circle protesters and prevent them from leaving a given area – was employed consistently throughout the 2009 demonstrations. This was hardly brutality, more a confused response to a significantly inflated threat.

Then came the summer riots of 2011. For the first two nights of the riots, the police were simply nowhere to be seen. It seemed, to anyone watching that the rioters had scared the police off the streets. Eventually, officers started to appear, but were used to tour areas of London asking business owners to shut up shop to prevent looting. Rather than showing any concerns regarding police ‘brutality’, many people expressed deep frustration at the ‘impotence’ of the police. This led the prime minister, David Cameron, in a desperate attempt to appear decisive, to deploy 16,000 additional officers. Having poured unprecedented numbers of officers on to the streets, the trouble failed to materialise for a third night, and the police were once again left standing around twiddling their batons.

The tragic death of Ian Tomlinson is not symptomatic of a more brutal police force. It is simply a fitting illustration of a wider crisis of authority and purpose in modern policing and the state as a whole. While the police and the government have been keen to dismiss Harwood as a ‘rogue’ officer, assisted by the press shouting about his disciplinary record, he was not the only person policing the G20 that day who had no idea what he should be doing. His confused and panicked reaction to an ageing alcoholic wandering past merely reflected the confusion and panic that has permeated every instance of public-order policing since. Far from a rogue officer, Harwood was a fitting symbol of the collapse of authoritative British policing, and the incoherence at the heart of the modern British state.

Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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Topics Politics


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