Why our coppers can't be blamed

Observations on police

Hunter S Thompson, one of the few enduring voices to emerge from the 1960s counter-culture, always did have a reputation for telling it like it is.

In the current edition of Vanity Fair - the much-respected, impeccably fact-checked US magazine - he turns his merciless attention to the police force of Denver, Colorado, where he lives. What has made him so angry is the wrongful imprisonment of a 28-year-old woman, Lisl Auman.

"It is not in my nature to turn my back on a woman who is being brutally raped," he writes, "especially when the rapists are wearing big guns and Denver Police Department badges. And that is why I am telling you this disgusting story about how notoriously vicious cops buried a provably innocent young woman in a tiny cell in a Colorado state prison for the rest of her life with no possibility of parole.

"That is a death sentence, pure and simple, and those rotten, murdering bastards are still proud of it. Proud. Remember that word, because it is going to come back and haunt every one of these swine."

He could go on and, in his inimitable Hunteresque way, he does. As he names the head of the force, the libel lawyer's pen is conspicuously absent.

The Lisl Auman scandal will whack the Denver law-enforcement establishment like Watergate whacked Richard Nixon . . . [who] was so crooked that he needed servants to screw his pants on every morning, and so is Denver police chief Gerry Whitman. He and his force have committed more crimes against humanity than Lisl Auman ever dreamed of. He should be indicted by a grand jury and put on trial in a federal court for criminal conspiracy . . . then put immediately in prison for ten years.

A defence witness is later quoted as saying, of named police officers who have given evidence: "There go the liars".

How many times have journalists in this country, writing about British cases, rehearsed such sentiments in their head, only to realise that committing them to paper would be pointless? To say that comments of that kind would cause apoplexy in the legal departments of UK newspapers is untrue; they'd be received with boredom and irritation and dismissed in less than ten seconds. For a journalist even to imagine that they might be published would be regarded as seriously unprofessional.

Yet we certainly have cases that approximate to Auman's and we certainly have police officers who have perjured themselves to put "provably innocent" people in prison for the rest of their lives. Nor are these officers confined to the major forces - the Metropolitan, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands - which in previous decades have been associated with misconduct and corruption. Some of the smaller, rural forces, once derided by senior police elsewhere for their outmoded punctiliousness, have in recent years made great strides in learning how to manufacture the prosecution's evidence and lose the defence's.

Nevertheless, even if the US and UK libel laws were not several oceans apart, and journalists here could write plainly about police dishonesty, it would still be counter-productive to do so. The Court of Appeal does not, as a rule, recognise dereliction of duty in certain professions. In order to get a conviction quashed, defence lawyers must skilfully create the illusion that, although an innocent person may have ended up with a life sentence, this was a result of ill fortune. And if lawyers can assure the judges that nobody in an official capacity was to blame - and certainly not the police - they greatly enhance the prospects of a successful appeal.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2004 issue of the New Statesman, What Brown would do in No 10