First, this post is unashamedly off topic for what’s primarily a blog about digital TV and other technology matters. If you’re a regular reader and that annoys you, then tough. If you’ve come here because of this post and are hoping for more in the same vein, such posts will be few and far between.
It’s five years to the day that the Metropolitan Police shot and killed Jean Charles de Menezes; not their finest hour, and perhaps not the best anniversary to pick for announcing the decision regarding whether or not to prosecute the policeman who struck Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests. But they have, and a large part of the internet appears to be protesting right now that no charges will be brought.
I would venture to suggest that, while many will be outraged, there will be a pretty sizeable number of people whose outrage is tempered not by surprise, but by resignation. Those will be friends and relatives of people who have lost someone, in various ways, to the actions of the police.
There are the high profile cases, like the two I’ve mentioned already, and that of Harry Stanley, shot because someone in a pub called the police and told them a bloke was carrying a gun in a bag; the gun turned out to be a table leg. And when an inquest jury had the nerve to return a verdict of unlawful killing, the Met had that overturned, and their firearms squad had a collective sulk and threatened to hand in their weapons if they were held to the same sort of standards as everyone else in the country.
There are many other cases of people dying as a result of the action or inaction of police officers; people restrained in dangerous ways, or left in police cells with no medical attention, for example. And most of these don’t get anywhere near as much publicity – few, either, happen under the gaze of the public, like the Tomlinson and de Menezes campaigns.
The death of my own twin brother in 1991 was one such; and while it was certainly far less dramatic than these high profile cases, all too often there seem to be similarities.
The short facts: late in February 1991, my brother was stopped for speeding in Cambridge; he failed a breath test, and was arrested. He allegedly said to one of the officers, when asked what he was doing, that he was looking for a wall to drive into so he could kill himself without hurting anyone else. We know from his friends that there had been some sort of argument or upset earlier in the evening, so that could indeed be true. Which makes the next bit even more peculiar.
Patrick was placed in a police van. A policewoman was put in the back of the van with him. Shortly after the van started moving, he allegedly got up, opened the van door, and jumped out. He allegedly landed on his feet, then fell over, hitting his head on the curb. What we do know is that he sustained fatal injuries as a result, falling into a coma and dying on the 5th of March 1991, when his life support systems were turned off.
What happened next
Back in 1991 the organisation responsible for investigating this sort of thing was the Police Complaints Authority (PCA), rather than the new Independent Police Complaints Commission. But, it seems, new name, same old tactics.
This involves getting one police force (Suffolk, here) to investigate the actions of another, and produce a report. Then people sit on it, dither around a bit, and finally announce that nothing’s going to be done – the CPS wrote and their letter essentially said that, while an offence might have been committed, it was not of sufficient gravity to merit a prosecution.
I suspect – and this is where my brother’s case will differ from that of some of the more high profile ones, but certainly not from many others – that it’s because it may have been an offence of omission, rather than commission.
One could speculate that it may be negligence, perhaps. Having made the statement he allegedly did, why was my brother not handcuffed? Why was the van not locked? Why did the officer not sit between him and the door? Did the officer with him hear his statement? And if she did not, why didn’t the other officers draw it to her attention, if she was to be guarding a distressed individual?
Lots of questions – and lots of “allegedly” you’ll notice too, because at the inquest, the police officers involved refused to answer questions and simply read their prepared statements. The van involved was exhibited to the jury – for what purpose I really don’t know, especially since it had been refurbished in the intervening six months – and they were given the choice of accidental death, or suicide.
A familiar pattern?
Suicide would seem a strange verdict, but misdirection seems to be one of the chief aims of the police in cases like this. Just as they made up claims about Jean Charles de Menezes running and jumping over barriers, or that protestors obstructed paramedics attending to Ian Tomlinson, so in my brother’s case they did some digging around to try and deflect attention – and if you’ve suffered a similar loss, I bet this will sound familiar to you too.
In my brother’s case, it was looking into his bank account, and suggesting that maybe he was worried about his overdraft, and other similar reasons to try and suggest that he’d deliberately tried to end his life by jumping out of the van.
Now, the van had barely started moving, and he landed on his feet after leaving it. On the face of it, that seems a pretty weird way to try to commit suicide, doesn’t it? And most people would not imagine that falling from an upright position and hitting your head on a kerb would actually be fatal.
But, no matter. The misdirection was out there. The refusal to answer questions – something you can only do at an inquest – helped, as did the alleged statement my brother made to the police.
Actually, I accept he probably did say that; but like me he could be flippant at times, and it’s just the sort of thing he would do. I certainly don’t think he’d have jumped from a van going at barely more than walking pace, in the expectation that it would end his life. And I do think that, you know, locking vans when you’re transporting people is a good idea. Do criminals in Cambridgeshire all abscond at red traffic lights?
It’s not a secret
What of the PCA investigation? Families weren’t allowed to see those; when I asked the investigating officer what was so secret he told me “There’s nothing secret in it, but it is confidential.” And it seems that even now, under the IPCC, investigations into deaths in police custody are far less open than they should be.
I’m not seeking to suggest my brother’s death was anything other than a tragic accident; it certainly doesn’t match the horror of the execution of Jean Charles de Menezes. And a prosecution wouldn’t make me as happy as knowing lessons were learnt, and something like that could never happen again.
But I think it does illustrate that the way the police close ranks, make up stories, and try to smear those who have died as a result of their actions or inactions happens not only in high profile cases, but in the many, many others that don’t achieve the same degree of publicity.
My heart goes out to the Tomlinson family, as it has so many other times over the last 19 years, whenever I’ve heard of other families who have lost someone.
I share your outrage at the lack of any prosecution for the officer involved in this case. But I’m unable to share in any surprise.