SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 141 - September 2010

A death in the city

IN JULY, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, announced that no charges would be pressed in relation to the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in London last year. In a grim irony, the announcement came on the fifth anniversary of the shooting dead of Jean Charles De Menezes, another victim of police violence. His family is still campaigning for some sort of justice.

There is huge anger at this travesty, epitomised by Ian’s son: "It’s an outrage. We feel like it was not a full investigation from the beginning. It’s a big cover up. He [Starmer] has just admitted on TV that a copper assaulted our dad. But he hasn’t done anything. He’s the man in charge, why hasn’t he charged him? They knew that if they dragged this out long enough, they would avoid charges". As well as the visceral anger this case has raised again far-reaching questions about the unaccountability of the police and their undemocratic structures, and the role of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) which deals with allegations against them.

Ian’s death was widely covered by the media, and the events of 1 April 2009 are familiar to many. Walking home from work as a street vendor for the London Evening Standard, Ian got stuck in the middle of a police cordon blocking protesters in London’s financial district. He was struck by PC Simon Harwood in what video footage has shown to be an unprovoked attack. After being knocked to the ground, Ian was helped up by a protestor, unsteadily walked 200 feet from the police officer who had assaulted him, collapsed and died. After initially denying any police contact prior to his death, mobile phone video footage captured by members of the public made this position indefensible. This triggered the investigation which the IPCC claims is "one of the largest ever undertaken".

The IPCC is organisationally independent of the police and was formed in 2002 following heavy criticism of bias in its forerunner, the Police Complaints Authority. However, the IPCC has also been criticised for being unresponsive and biased. In 2008, the Police Action Law Group (PALG), a group of around 100 lawyers specialising in police complaints, resigned from the IPCCs advisory body. Among their reasons was the charge that there exists "a pattern of favouritism towards the police with some complaints being rejected in spite of apparently powerful evidence in their support".

The small percentage of complaints that are substantiated, combined with the damming statements of the PALG, paint a very worrying picture. In 2008/09, for example, only 6% of investigations into sexual assault by members of the police force were substantiated, 5% of assault claims and 6% of complaints of unlawful arrest.

There is no outside involvement in these investigations. In most instances, the IPCC appoints a local police authority to carry out an investigation. If a complaint is deemed ‘serious’ enough, it will be directly investigated by the IPCC. However, its investigating team is largely made up of ex-police personnel. To begin to be genuinely ‘independent’, the IPCC would have to be run by elected bodies representing a cross-section of society, including community groups and trade unions.

The same is true of the police as a whole. Policing the G20 cost £8 million, the most expensive single police operation in British history. Who decided the police’s priorities and where they should be deployed?

PC Harwood had previously been investigated for misconduct. While on sick leave from the Metropolitan Police in the late 1990s, he was involved in a road-rage incident and tried to arrest the other driver. Rather than have the case heard, Harwood quit the force. It is unclear how thoroughly Harwood was vetted when he reapplied to the Met in 2004. Surely such appointments should be overseen by bodies representative of the people the police are supposed to ‘protect’?

This sort of democratic control has a precedent. When the Met was established in 1829 borough councils appointed watch committees. The control of the police was seen as a local government function and the watch committees were comprised of elected councillors, who had powers to appoint constables and officers, and control their pay and work priorities. Of course, this was before the majority of the working class had the right to vote. In reality, the watch committees represented the developing (and newly enfranchised) industrial and commercial capitalist class. The question posed by tragedies such as the death of Ian Tomlinson is: how can we make the police more accountable to the majority in our society? As working people are forced to struggle to defend their interests, inevitably coming into contact with the forces of the state, this will be even more sharply posed.

Sections of the police are conscious of this. That is what underpins criticisms of the G20 police operation. Denis O’Connor, chief inspector of constabulary, stated: "It did not impress me that this was the British way of policing". It is also behind the internal disciplinary process that Harwood now faces – for ‘gross misconduct’ instead of a criminal charge. This goes nowhere near to satisfying the family’s desire for justice. And it does not address questions about control and accountability. It is an attempt by the Met to assuage the public.

This will not wash, however. Over the course of the next period, more and more working-class people will take up the idea of genuine democratic control of the economy to address the problems we face. They will begin to look towards another way of running society, based on socialist democracy. The struggle for such a fundamental change will necessitate a thorough understanding of the role of the police in class society. The questions raised around the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson are initial but important steps in this direction.

Greg Maughan


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