Thursday, 19 July 2012

Thoughts on the acquital of PC Harwood...

The British media is today covering the acquital of PC Simon Harwood on manslaughter charges for the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in the city of London, April 2009. PC Harwood was on duty as a member of the Metropolitan Police Sevice's (MPS) public order unit, the Territorial Support Group (TSG), and was caught on camera pushing Ian Tomlinson to the ground shortly before he died.

After the jury decided he was not guilty of manslaughter, more evidence came forward about a list of previous complaints against PC Harwood for violent or inappropriate conduct that could cause some to question whether he should have been in the Police service at all. However, due to a series of organisational failings, he was allowed to retire from one police force (the MPS), join another (Surrey), and then re-join the MPS and return to active duty in the TSG. While the Press is right to focus on this lapse in vetting procedures, I think there is a wider issue that needs to be considered as well.

To me part of the tragedy for Ian Tomlinson and his grieving family is that his death seems to have been at least in part a by-product of the use of indiscriminate public order techniques that result in innocent bystanders being targetted with force by police, and in this case with fatal consequences. The day of the protests, Ian was trying to walk back to the shelter he was staying at, but unfortunately for him, the police had set up a vast containment (or 'kettle') of protestors outside the Bank of England. He was unable to make his way round the cordon before being caught up in the melee between police and protestors, and in the confusion, he was struck by PC Harwood before being pushed to the ground, staggering to his feet, and collapsing and dying soon after. It doesn't look like Ian was contained within the 'kettle' himself, but I would argue that the use of such indiscriminate tactics on the day created an atmosphere of hostility between the police and crowd members, to the extent that all people in the vicinity could have been seen as a potential threat by the police regardless of whether they were involved in the protests or not.  Academic research (eg Reicher et al, 2004 & Stott, 2009) has argued that police public order strategies can result in a self-fulfilling prophesy, because if you view crowds as a potential threat, and treat them as a threat, they may then become that very threat.

Ian Tomlinson was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and his family is right to demand justice for what his inquest decided was an unlawful killing. However, what also worries me is that the use of indiscriminate public order tactics sets up a psychological dynamic which means such tragedies could happen again, if all people in the vicinity of a protest are treated in a uniform way.

An open letter of solidarity from the Defend the Right to Protest Campaign to the family of Ian Tomlinson can be found here

Reicher, S., Stott, C., Cronin, P. & Adang, O. (2004). A New Approach to Crowd Psychology and Public Order Policing. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 27, (4), 558–572.

Stott CJ. (2009). 'Crowd psychology and public order policing'. Liverpool, University of Liverpool, UK.

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