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Public Enemy Number One

Nearly four years after the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, another man has died after an unprov

One was a 27-year-old plumber on his way to a job by Tube; the other, a 47-year-old newspaper vendor walking home from work. Two Londoners, both living peacefully within the law one moment; the next, after sudden encounters with the police, both dead.

On the face of it, the parallels between the cases of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson are limited. The Brazilian – wrongly suspected of being a potential suicide bomber – was pursued into Stockwell Tube station and shot repeatedly in the head. Tomlinson, as the video footage showed, was ambling through the City when he was shoved to the ground by one of a cluster of baton-wielding officers on a day of wider protests in London.

But it isn’t only the innocence of the victims that links the incidents of 22 July 2005 and 1 April 2009: the more telling connection is in the all-too-familiar concealment. Twenty years on from the extensive police cover-up after the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died, the force is still able to hide its actions.

On both occasions, the Metropolitan Police immediately put out a false version of events.

In the case of de Menezes, the police briefed for a full 24 hours that the victim was an Islamist terrorist – “Suicide bomber shot on Tube” was the Sky News strapline – and only eventually conceded that he was innocent. Andy Hayman, then the Met’s head of counterterrorism and intelligence, was later shown to have concealed his doubts about de Menezes’s guilt from the Met commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, during the hours and days after the shooting. Since then, details have emerged of how the police deleted and selectively presented CCTV footage and photographs of de Menezes. Furthermore, it was said that he had been running; that he had jumped the Tube barriers; that he had been wearing a bulky coat; and that he had been challenged verbally by police. In fact, CCTV footage finally released in July 2007 shows a lightly dressed de Menezes calmly picking up a morning newspaper and strolling through the station barriers on to the escalator.

Similarly, on the day that Tomlinson died of a heart attack the Met issued a wholly misleading statement. A member of the public, it said, told police that “there was a man who had collapsed round the corner”. Officers, it was claimed, had tried to help medics save his life as “missiles, believed to be bottles”, were hurled at them.

The reality, again revealed in video, shows Tomlinson walking with his hands in his pockets, offering neither resistance nor threat to the police line behind him. Next, he is struck around the legs by a baton-wielding Territorial Support Group officer who then shoves Tomlinson to the ground. After “bouncing” – a witness’s word – on the ground, a terrified Tomlinson can be seen looking up in disbelief at the officers, who stand back, leaving the public to tend to him.

An interesting detail emerged as the video of Tomlinson’s last moments flashed around the world: more people in Brazil were downloading and viewing the film on the internet than in any other nation after the UK and the US. Why was this footage of such fascination to Brazilians? Because, unlike many here, they were joining the dots between Jean Charles de Menezes and the death of Ian Tomlinson.

What connects de Menezes, Tomlinson and countless other victims of brutality is the fact that the police get away with it. Each outrage is treated as an isolated incident; the link running through them is left unmade.

In the aftermath of the Tomlinson shooting, it was notable that not a single politician on the panel for BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? felt able to condemn the police on the basis of prima facie evidence, preferring to defer to the conclusions of an inquiry. Yet confidence in the outcome of any inquiry is, on past experience, misplaced. Immediately after Tomlinson’s death, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) asked the City of London Police – some of whose officers are seen in the video of Tomlinson’s last moments – to conduct an investigation on its behalf. Only a week later did the IPCC reverse that decision and take control of the inquiry. However, at the time of writing, it still had not questioned the key officer in the video.

“I cannot see how the City of London Police could have been expected to be the right vehicle for investigating Tomlinson’s death, when they were part of the same policing operation,” says the former London mayor Ken Livingstone. His criticisms extend to the handling of the demonstration. “In the build-up to the G20 there seemed to be no strategy either by the police or City Hall to defuse the growing media storyline of impending violence,” he says now. “Failing to deal with this can only have had an impact on the tension felt by demonstrators and police alike.”

That tension was exacerbated by the use of the controversial police tactic of “kettling” – containing demonstrators in a small area and refusing to let anyone leave. The first time Livingstone became aware of the practice was, he says, during the May Day protests in 2002, “where a minority of demonstrators were openly planning violence, with no attempt to co-operate with the authorities, and when there was a clear legal alternative demonstration on offer. This time, the public were given no warnings not to attend or warned that it would be safer to attend another event. In these circumstances you have to question whether ‘kettling’ people can in any way be justified.”

Neither front bench has questioned this practice – a lack of scrutiny that fits in with a long pattern of politicians’ unwillingness to hold the police properly to account.

For decades, politicians from both main parties have praised the police and bolstered them with new powers. Yet the force remains the one public body in the United Kingdom not subject to the spotlight of scrutiny. As home secretary, Kenneth Clarke raised the idea of directly electing police authorities, but the proposal was rejected by Margaret Thatcher in 1993. She left the police off her list of public institutions to undergo radical reform.

Tony Blair continued what has in practice (with the possible of exception of Roy Jenkins’s periods at the Home Office) been Labour’s authoritarian approach to law and order when in government. As he put it in 2004: “We asked the police what powers they wanted, and gave them to them.” Gordon Brown takes a similar approach. When the Police Federation threatened to strike in December 2007, he was emollience itself. “I am the last person to want to be in a position where we don’t give the police what they want,” Brown said. And both men pushed for detention without trial of “terror suspects” (for 90 and 42 days, respectively), just as the Association of Chief Police Officers demanded.

Before the IPCC came into being in 2004, police scrutiny was largely the responsibility of local police authorities, plus the home secretary. After 2004, however, the IPCC began to oversee the complaints system introduced under the

Police Reform Act 2002. Defenders of the force argue that these advances show that the need for change has been recognised. Others point out that, although by law entirely independent, the IPCC is, however, funded by the Home Office. Many claim it lacks teeth.

In any case, the act’s emphasis was not on accountability, but on efficiency and bolstering support for the force. It introduced community support officers and enhanced the power of the constable. According to a definitive overview in the Warwick University Criminal Law Review in 2003, it was aimed at “clamping down on antisocial conduct in pursuit of a populist agenda”.

The populist media themselves have a case to answer regarding the lack of effective police accountability. The conventional wisdom is that the only flaw in the policing system is that officers are burdened with “red tape” and form-filling. But this is a distraction, and enables politicians to avoid fundamental reforms.

Because of such long and sustained support from the governing classes, the police remain the last closed shop in Britain today. This lack of oversight has led to the tolerance of incompetence, violence and racism. It explains how, though the police were found guilty of breaching “health and safety” by killing de Menezes, not a single officer has been charged, let alone dismissed, over the shooting. Reportedly, the officer who shot de Menezes has shot and killed again. It remains to be seen whether action will be taken against the officer caught on video pushing Tomlinson to the ground, but the precedents are not reassuring.

One reason Tomlinson’s case has commanded such attention is, in part, because deaths at the hands of police are relatively rare during protests, and when they occur they provoke national outrage. Less attention is given to lower-level assaults during demonstrations.

Less noticed still are the shocking deaths – predominantly among black people – that take place in police custody. The Institute of Race Relations, the only group to monitor such incidents, lists on its website details of 174 deaths of black men and women since 1978, through beatings and mysterious hangings and in other, unknown circumstances. The number of officers who have been held to account over these deaths? Zero.

Racism in the police force remains an ever-present, if only sporadically documented reality. The police’s supporters on the right dismiss the description of the Met in the 1999 Macpherson report – “institutionally racist” – as “political correctness”. And yet the routine and disproportionate targeting of black people remains.

Tomlinson may have been white, but, in the opinion of Alfred John, chair of the Met’s Black Police Authority (MetBPA), his death has “reagitated open wounds”.

“For decades this issue has been raised but never really clarified,” John says. “For many years the MetBPA has shouted about the disproportionate and disturbing statistics, but still the deaths keep occurring, and still no one is brought to account within the service.

“As a black member of the public, I am more likely to be stopped and searched; more likely to receive harsher sentencing if a crime has been committed; more likely to be recorded on the DNA register; and, most disturbingly of all, I am more likely to die in police custody. The lack of accountability is woeful. When the police seem to be less accountable than the public, how can they expect the communities to trust them?”

The latest group to be targeted disproportionately is British Asians, arrests of whom rose by 300 per cent during the two years following the 11 September 2001 attacks. To many, including Labour ministers, this is entirely justifiable, given the threat from so-called Islamist terrorists. Hazel Blears, then a Home Office minister, conceded in March 2005 that “some of our counter-terrorism powers will be disproportionately experienced by the Muslim community”. After one such experience, the fruitless Forest Gate raid of June 2006, Tony Blair said he still backed the police “110 per cent”.

The issue of oversight has, according to Ken Livingstone, been obscured by recent high-profile sackings that he views as being politically motivated. “Through his actions over the removal of Sir Ian Blair and his antics over the announcement of [the former Met anti-terror chief] Bob Quick’s resignation, Boris Johnson has, if anything, weakened the case for much clearer lines of accountability,” he says. “He has added suspicion within the Met that there is an attempt to politicise operational policing.”

A former Labour minister agrees. “The old cry of the left was to make the police accountable,” he says. “But actually it is the right, in the shape of Boris Johnson and [the shadow home secretary] Chris Grayling, who are putting the Met under Tory control.” Referring to the police raid on the offices of a Tory frontbencher whom they arrested as part of a leaks inquiry, he remarks: “Boris knows that firing a top cop makes headlines, and Tory high command were out to get Quick over the Damian Green affair.”

The majority of senior policemen now form a university-educated officer class, and yet still there is no one with the intellectual stature to start a debate about what needs to be done to modernise, reform and make accountable a 21st-century constabulary. Added up, the numbers of deaths involving the police run to several hundred in the past decade: 126 killed in police driving accidents between 2000 and 2004; 204 fatalities in custody between 2002 and 2004.

The police culture of secrecy and cover-up has reigned unchecked for more than a generation. During that time politicians have turned a blind eye. It is high time for the service to be systematically held to account – for the deaths, the injustices, the racism and the incompetence. Tomlinson’s death, though it has captured the public’s attention, is not an isolated incident: it is the latest in a trail of shady misdemeanours. It is time to join the dots, and reform the police.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?