Fran Legg reflects on a verdict that exposes a system determined to protect its own

The first time I watched the footage of Ian Tomlinson being attacked by a police officer at the G20 protests in April 2009 I felt pure revulsion. That feeling of horror doesn’t even come close to what was felt yesterday when, after four days of deliberation, a jury at Southwark Crown Court found PC Simon Harwood ‘not guilty’ of manslaughter.

I was in Cornhill on the 1st April and I was  present, along with others, during some of Ian’s final moments. Having refrained from writing about that day for over 3 years for fear of jeopardising a trial, I would now like to comment upon the attack, the subsequent investigation, and a verdict which has proved to be a damning reflection of a system set up to protect its own.

‘Heavy handed’ doesn’t really do justice to the style of policing on the day of the G20 protests. I have memories of people being pushed, kicked and hit by police officers dressed in riot gear from the beginning of the day, and many police officers spoiling for a fight. Whilst trying to make his way home on foot through the city, Ian had been repeatedly denied passage through police lines and had been set-upon by a police dog and bitten on his leg, before being hit with a baton by PC Harwood and pushed to the ground.

As the video footage has shown, Ian had been walking away from Harwood and the police line at the time of the attack, hands in pockets. He was unable to break his fall and landed heavily on his side. Three pathologists later cited internal bleeding as the cause of death, as a result of the impact caused by the fall. The contempt shown for Ian’s life by PC Harwood was mirrored to a lesser extent by those officers who witnessed the attack and failed to help Ian to his feet or offer medical assistance.

Details of PC Harwood’s disciplinary history, disclosed at pre-inquest and pre-trial hearings but not made public for fear of ‘prejudicing’ the jury, ‘include allegations that he punched, throttled, kneed, threatened and unlawfully arrested people‘. During one incident Harwood was alleged to have racially abused a man and his daughter and threatened to burn their house down.

In a separate incident, a fellow officer reported that during a raid on a flat he saw Harwood grab ‘… a suspect by the throat, punch him twice in the face and push him into a table, causing it to break‘. Harwood avoided disciplinary proceedings by resigning due to ‘ill health’, moving forces and then moving back to the Met. He later joined the Territorial Support Group (TSG), which specialises in public order policing and has a reputation for being institutionally violent.

Just months before the G20 protests, Harwood was found to have unlawfully accessed the police national computer. He ‘admitted searching the database to find details of a driver involved in a car accident with his wife‘ and that the driver’s supposed unwillingness to take the situation seriously had sent him into a ‘red mist mode’.

Having given evidence to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) in relation to the death of Ian Tomlinson, the revelation that Harwood has a history of tracking down people he feels have aggrieved him is certainly not an easy one to stomach.

Deceit and unaccountability have prevailed throughout these past 3 years. Following Ian’s death the Tomlinson family were told by police that Ian had likely been killed by a protester disguised in a police officer’s uniform. The police told them that Ian had come under a rain of missiles from protesters as he lay dying on the floor. The family were discouraged from speaking with journalists and to begin with were denied access to see his body.

As the truth began to emerge the IPCC still remained hesitant  to fully investigate the case. Under the direction of the City of London Police contested medical evidence was provided by pathologist Dr Freddy Patel. Patel, having removed and disposed of 3 litres of fluid and blood from Ian’s abdomen, concluded that Tomlinson had died of natural causes.

His findings were later contradicted by three other pathologists who all agreed that Ian had died from internal bleeding caused by the fall. Patel has since been suspended for falsifying his CV and carrying out botched post-mortems. An initial decision by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in July 2010 not to charge Harwood of any offence heaped further injustice on to the situation.

Over two years after Ian’s death, an inquest ruled he had been unlawfully killed by PC Simon Harwood. The CPS finally bowed to pressure and a charge of manslaughter was brought against Harwood.

Hopes of justice prevailing were repeatedly quashed whenever I attended court. Media restrictions and a fairly toothless prosecution case by the CPS gave all the signs of a system closing ranks around one of its own. The defence was led by a QC who specialises in defending officers involved in deaths in police custody.

Efforts to dehumanise Ian in much of the mainstream media- to portray him as an individual unworthy of our compassion- were reflected in court. The jury were reminded frequently of Tomlinson’s drinking problem and of the fact that he sometimes slept rough. The horrible result has been that too many people have become desensitised to the horror of his death and the suffering of his family.

And Ian’s case is not an anomaly. In the last 30 years over 1000 people have died either in custody or following contact with the police. Not one officer has been convicted for murder or manslaughter.

My primary motivation in writing this article has been to dispel some of the myths and blatant lies that surround this case. I hope that people go away and dig a bit deeper, read beyond the headlines, and begin to understand the depth and pervasiveness of police brutality and cover-ups.

I’m not sure what happens now. The family have indicated that they will pursue civil proceedings. I and others will help in any way that we can. They have been fighting for the last 3 years and 3 months for some semblance of justice.Their strength, courage and dignity has been an inspiration and I have nothing but respect for them all. Rest in peace Ian, we think about you every day.

For more details of the Ian Tomlinson family’s campaign, visit their website.