Culpability II: Long arm, no face

It has been apparent since the second of April that the rioting police in the Square Mile had hoist themselves upon their own petard. I heard a man had died circa one in the morning, via a mobile phone conversation one of my housemates had with our on-scene source. By the time the Guardian broke the first video of Tomlinson’s death, we had already heard rumours of police obscuring their faces and deliberately obfuscating their ID numbers. The video confirmed that it was one of these bizarrely secretive officers who had assaulted Mr. Tomlinson. I was not alone in wondering if the lack of easy accountability had contributed to the apparent culture of excess in the Met and their TSG units.

Well, now we know more. With the report by the Climate Camp legal team one can contextualise the somewhat chaotic impression of police cynicism that had emerged through the earlier eye-witnesses. First, as President Bartlett would say, show me numbers: in the official LO timetable, out of seven occasions where an officer’s identity is requested, on four of those occasions the request is refused. Clearly, in each case the officer was not wearing a visible ID, or they wouldn’t have needed to ask for the number. On the other hand, three to four: not bad. Then one comes to the eye-witness reports.

This document contains 18 eye-witness reports, at least one of which is a slightly expanded narrative we had already seen here. Between those 18 reports, I count nine instances of police violence, brutality or law-breaking where the witness does not comment on whether the officer was identifiable or wearing a number. I count two instances where the officer’s number was available. I count nineteen instances where officers are specifically recorded as being without numbers:

“In the front limit of our space there was a line of policemen (15‐20) in navy blue uniform, wearing closed helmets and carrying shields and batons (riot police). Surprisingly, I noticed that most of them (90%) did not have a number on their costume.” — Lily

“A protester outside the cordon was close with a camera and I called her over and asked her to photograph him because he’d pulled me by my hair and threatened me. His female colleague pushed the camera away quite violently. I asked him for his police number, and he refused.” — Dave

We have extensive video evidence that officers at various points were concealing their identities. Nick Hardwick, chair of the IPCC, has described the habit as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘disgraceful’. This is not new. What is new is that we can now identify a pattern. For a start, out of nineteen reports in this batch, only one happens prior to 17.48, which according to the LO timeline is when Sussex riot police showed up, followed an hour later by TSG 3-5. In fact, contextualising details between different eye-witness reports and the timeline it would appear that the initial police presence, the one described as ‘very chilled’ at 15.51 (i.e. the Met) were happy to be identified and were consistently wearing their numbers. That changes after 17.50 when the heavy mob move in.

Now, I find that quite interesting. Examine data from this copper (a necessary read, imo) and particularly the following quote:

On the 1st for example, most of the serials were on an 0800 start, they didn’t finish until 0200 and were then due back on for 0430 – so much for a minimum of 11 hours between shifts. After spending 14 hours getting battered with bottles and poles in one of the cordons in the City we were retasked to clear and take the climate camp.

Now, apart from the time discrepancy (the protests didn’t start til 11, no-one spent ’14 hrs getting battered’) this gives us an interesting piece of data. No-one can deny that the Meltdown protest turned violent in places. Police there had genuinely had to deal with opponents who were out to cause damage and to hurt; there had been a number of confrontations. I’m not getting into the who-started-it game here; what I’m drawing attention to is the timing. The guys who’d been dealing with that were “retasked to clear and take the climate camp”. We know from the time-line this happens between 17.50 and 19.20. We know from this police officer that the people being retasked were the people who’d been on the frontline at the other protest. We know from the eye-witness reports and from the LO timeline that the most significant police rioting and virtually all of the no-IDs happen after this.

And we now know that someone, almost certainly the Silver Commander [1], made a strategic decision to aim guys who had been dealing with violent idiots towards the Climate Camp. That officer then decided to brief them “to clear and take” the Camp. Now, them’s fightin’ words. That is, in fact, military terminology. This is not an accident. It is also now inconceivable that it was accidental that so many of the police tasked with initiating violence against a protest that even their own reports said was peaceful had deliberately obfuscated their numbers.

* * *

“We are concerned that protesters have the impression that the police are sometimes heavy-handed in their approach to protests, especially in wearing riot equipment in order to deal with peaceful demonstrations. Whilst we recognise that police officers should not be placed at risk of serious injury, the deployment of riot police can unnecessarily raise the temperature at protests.” — From the JPC on Human Rights. My emphasis added.

We have the beginnings of a picture here. It is not a pleasant one. The only accountability that exists of any sort with the UK police is through the IPCC: and as is noted in the report, they are not terribly useful. In 2007/8 the IPCC oversaw around 150 police self-investigations and carried out around 100 of its own. This in response to twenty-nine thousand formal complaints. Yes, that means at least twenty-eight thousand, eight hundred and fifty were simply dismissed out of hand, without even a cursory investigation. When a body which, under entirely normal circumstances, will ignore twenty-eight thousand legal complaints is handed such delightful ‘reasonable doubt’ excuses as no ID number and no face and no pictures (because your camera allegedly got smashed), how likely are they to hold the force to account?

This was not an accident. Humans are notoriously inclined to pay more attention to the 11th commandment than they do to the other 10. There is no legal requirement for officers to be identifiable. There was a clear culture of active accountability avoidance, and indeed there are rumours of specific senior officers organising the removal of numbers from whole squads. Contextualised with the efforts the police made to break and steal cameras and dictaphones, this builds a picture that is not just disturbing, it’s criminal.

The campaigners in the City were accused by some of having incoherent goals, or no goals at all. Well, the Climate Camp legal team finished their report with one goal, clear and concise: it bears re-quoting in full.

In their report the Committee commented that human rights law meant that ‘police should be exceptionally slow to prevent or interfere with a peaceful demonstration simply because of the violent actions of a minority’ (a statement difficult to reconcile with what happened at the Climate Camp). The Committee expressed concern that ‘protestors have the impression that the police are sometimes heavy‐handed in their approach to protests.’ If the report had been written a couple of weeks later following the G20 protests, we think the Committee would have shared the impression of protestors.

The Committee concluded ‘we have not found any systematic human rights abuses as a result of the policing of protest in the UK’. Our experience is that there are systemic problems with both the policing of protest and with the accountability of police for their actions.

We have one specific request, which may seem a minor request but we believe it is an essential foundation for policing in which the public can have confidence. It is vital that police officers in riot gear have their identification on their fronts and back at all times in extra large font so it is clearly visible. There is currently no legal requirement for police officers to display their identification. This needs to be rectified as a matter of urgency.

That way we can all watch the watchmen.

[1] I haven’t managed to find his name yet?

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2 responses to “Culpability II: Long arm, no face

  1. Pingback: Culpability VI: Law or Order? « The view across the bar.

  2. Hi, interesting post. I have been pondering this topic,so thanks for posting. I’ll certainly be subscribing to your posts.