Our Capital city is in a heightened state of alert as people plot to bring chaos to the streets. An unfortunate bystander dies and the Metropolitan Police are implicated. An official version of events follows which unravels as the truth unfolds. A slow but steady leak of information about the victim comes next. Most of the public move on to the next story – comfortable that the death at the hands of the authorities of a not-so-innocent person was a not-so-tragic accident. Others are placated with the promise of an independent inquiry.
We have been here before.
When newspaper vendor, Ian Tomlinson, died of a heart attack on 1 April on the streets of my Cities of London and Westminster constituency during the G20 protests, most people had faith that the police were doing their best in difficult circumstances. After witnessing mindless anarchists smash the windows of the local RBS and holier-than-thou street warriors antagonise police officers, a sharp shove to an obnoxious participant would not have made headlines had the man concerned not died.
The situation was controllable. The official line would be that a stressed officer in a tense situation lashed out, hitting an innocent person in the melee after mistaking them for a pesky protestor. Following the assault, the man had walked off and only died later of a heart attack as the riotous crowd prevented him from getting medical attention. The problem with this ‘official’ version of events was that it was plainly untrue. A video of clip of the incident taken by an office worker nearby appeared days later, revealing that the victim had been hit across the legs with a baton by a masked police officer in what appeared to be an unprovoked attack.
So the Metropolitan Police’s spin doctors turned to Plan B: a subtle shift in message through the selective leaking of information about the victim. Tomlinson was casually dressed in soccer colours (football hooligan), he appeared to have been drunk and had approached officers before (confrontational alcoholic), he was a 47 year old father of nine (less a newspaper vendor, more an irresponsible waster). What was such a person doing mixed up in all this?
The Independent Police Complaints Commission has now taken charge of the inquiry into Mr Tomlinson’s death and it would not be right to predict or influence the outcome of that investigation. But the fact remains that this tragic incident occurred in my constituency just six months after I publicly criticised the leadership of the Metropolitan Police in its handling of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, a case whose handling bears worrying similarities to Tomlinson’s. After a very public airing of the Met’s mendacious culture and the high profile dismissal/resignation of erstwhile Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, have no lessons been learned?
Within a week of the de Menezes shooting in July 2005, I raised my concern that the heartening show of national unity against the threat of terrorism should not be used to silence awkward questions about the incident. Writing before the inquest into that shooting some three years later, I suggested that ‘At that time of heightened alert, when London had been so senselessly attacked only weeks before, the general public did not truly care whether de Menezes had or had not been a terrorist. Had the Met put its hands up straight away and admitted that a terrible mistake had been made, I believe it would have been accepted’.
Similarly in the Tomlinson case, where a riot-thirsty media hyped the prospect of attacks on law-abiding workers by professional anarchists, we had a situation not entirely removed from London in July 2005 when the fear of Islamic terrorism loomed large. So too, I believe, would the majority of the public have accepted that the Metropolitan Police is unable to micromanage its officers to the extent that all mistakes can be prevented, all bad apples removed.
The point of all these cases is not the individual incidents themselves, appalling though they are. It is their subsequent public relations management and the culture it reveals which does such harm to the confidence, trust and faith in our law enforcers. We had been assured after the de Menezes inquiry that ‘lessons had been learned’. This makes the immediate Met reaction to the events of 1 April so disappointing, not least to those of us living in London who want to see the police succeed.
Even if Londoners do not care much about Messrs de Menezes and Tomlinson, do these incidents make them doubt the word of the Metropolitan Police in a way that would not have been imaginable only a few short years ago? Do Londoners honestly trust that our law enforcers are law abiders? It is remarkable that even many middle class Londoners who would never before have questioned the Metropolitan Police are now inclined to think again.
This must stop. For sure, there will always be mistakes and it would be completely wrong to undermine the excellent police work of the many with the errors of a few. But there is no excuse for the mendacity apparent in the attempts at manipulation of public opinion that follow too many high profile controversial Metropolitan Police slip ups.
The immediate reaction of the Met’s leadership should always be transparently to seek out the truth, isolate problems and apply the rule of law to its own officers when necessary. It is understandable that the initial police instinct is to close ranks when confronted by public aggression. But its leadership should recognise that the majority of people are reasonable and understand the pressures police are under. Only by being honest and transparent with the public when mistakes have been made can trust now be restored.