Yesterday the news broke that an unnamed police firearms officer ("AZ8") who may have killed the barrister Mark Saunders had been removed from firearms duty after allegedly inserting song titles into his oral evidence at the coroner's inquest. It was also reported that the matter had been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
The alleged song titles have not been publicly disclosed, though the Guardian helpfully told us:
An examination of the transcript shows that evidence given by AZ8 contained a number of phrases which are also the titles of songs, including "Enough Is Enough" by Donna Summer, "Point of No Return" by Buzzcocks, "Line of Fire" by Journey, "Quiet Moments" by Chris de Burgh, "Kicking Myself" by As Tall As Lions and "Fuck My Old Boots" by the Membranes.
I was at Bar school with Mark Saunders and, although I did not know him, we had mutual friends. But for this blog post it does not – and should not – matter whether the person shot dead by the police was a barrister or a barman.
The sole issue is whether a police firearms officer was contriving his crucial oral evidence to an inquest so as to serve an ulterior purpose.
Why would it matter? Well, as sources "close to the Police Commissioner" said, it shows "insensitivity and lack of judgement". But it goes further than that. When being examined at any inquest or hearing, a witness should be addressing the question directly and not seeking to formulate his or her answers to serve ulterior purposes. Any contrivance is likely to be at the expense of the reliability of the evidence given.
So, is the suggestion true? Were song titles inserted into the sworn evidence?
It is, of course, a matter now for the IPCC. However, for those interested in following this investigation, the following information is available. First, the Metropolitan Police's statement, which was emailed to me:
A matter was brought to MPS attention during the Mark Saunders inquest in relation to evidence given by a firearms officer to the inquest. The issue was dealt with at the time by the officer's management who reprimanded him.
On 28 October 2010 the matter came to the attention of senior officers who felt this was insufficient. As a result the matter was referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission on the 29 October.
We have now been informed by the IPCC that they will manage an investigation by the Metropolitan Police Directorate of Professional Standards.
The MPS takes this matter extremely seriously as we expect the highest standards of all of our staff.
The officer has been removed from operational firearms duty.
And there is the IPCC statement:
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) received a referral from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) on Friday 29 October 2010 in relation to the evidence given by a firearms officer to the inquest into the death of Mark Saunders.
It is alleged that, while giving evidence under oath to the inquest on 27 September 2010, officer AZ8 deliberately inserted song titles into his verbal testimony.
The IPCC has now decided that it will manage an investigation by the MPS's Directorate of Professional Standards into the allegation. This means that an IPCC investigator will have direction and control of the investigation and IPCC Commissioner Tom Davies will have oversight of it.
The investigation will examine the officer's testimony, any impact that testimony may have had on the proceedings, the way in which the allegation was initially dealt with by one of his supervisors and whether or not any other police officers were involved.
But what did AZ8 actually say? Below is attached a PDF of the oral testimony of AZ8, which has been kindly released by the coroner.
Can the supposed "inserted song titles" all be simple coincidences, perhaps spotted by some busybody either within or external to the Metropolitan Police?
One would suppose that any substantial oral evidence would, if analysed, tend to include song titles. Verbal communication often contains clichés and figures of speech, and such words and phrases will tend also to crop up as song titles. Certain cultural memes do come to mind when trying to express any idea: the title of this blog post, for example, owes something to my interest in Alan Moore's writings. To invoke a meme or to utter a cliché – especially when under pressure of formal questioning – may not necessarily be either dishonest or distracting.
Or is this a matter of contrivance, rather than coincidence? Did the officer boast of his feat? Was it the result of some cynical dare between officers? Was this a horrific misapplication of "barrack-room humour"? (And only the most earnest reader would begrudge those involved in dangerous work a certain levity, but the time and place for it surely cannot include sworn testimony to a coroner's inquest.)
Was it really a joke at the expense of someone the firearms officer may have killed?
We simply do not know the answers to these and other questions, and it is not appropriate for us to anticipate the result of the IPCC investigation. Although there would appear to be information not in the public domain but available to the Metropolitan Police which rendered the initial reprimand an insufficient sanction, what that information could be – or even that it exists – is mere speculation.
But what can be safely said is this. If it is true that the oral evidence of this police firearms officer was being contrived so as to serve any ulterior motive, rather than being provided to assist a coroner's inquest, then not only should we be disgusted at the facts in this particular case, we should also be concerned that we cannot have full confidence in the testimony of firearms officers in inquests and other hearings. And that is a confidence we dearly need to have.
David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He blogs for the New Statesman on policy and legal matters. He has recently been appointed a judge for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging, for which he was shortlisted this year