I was wrong in my inital assessment of the policing of the G20 demonstrations. I should have followed my own rule of never taking at face value the first things you are told about any police operation.
I remain of the view that in most other countries the police response would have been even more violent; there would have been tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets and maybe real bullets. However, as we now know, the policing of the G20 demonstrations will not go down as a perfect example of restrained British policing, where the right to demonstrate peacefully was respected and the police response was proportionate and good-humoured. Indeed, I suspect the repercussions of the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson and the footage of other incidents may well set the tone of the debate about British policing for several years to come.
There are some important immediate lessons for Sir Paul Stephenson and his senior team at the Metropolitan Police (and indeed I suspect they are lessons that all Chief Constables should heed).
First of all, there is a culture of concealment within the police service. It took several days before the officers involved in the incidents preceding Ian Tomlinson’s death were identified. This may well be because of the prevailing blame-approach which means that officers do not come forward and hope that whatever fuss there is passes them by. However, you might have expected – maybe I am too idealistic – that officers would have been debriefed about the events of the day by their supervisors and that knowing that someone had died near where they had been would have thought to mention that someone who might have been Mr Tomlinson had been pushed over or hit (there is no reason why the officers concerned would have known who he was, but they would have known that there had been an interaction). This information should then have been relayed rapidly up the management tree, so that senior officers were not caught unawares as the wider story emerged.
Second, there has clearly been a re-emergence of the bad old practice of officers engaged in public order work removing their identifying numbers. I thought this had been stamped out long ago. Indeed, when I was Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the MPA had gone further and successfully required (against considerable opposition from within the Met) that officers’ names be on their uniforms (to make them more accessible to the public). It needs to be clear whether the removal of identifying numbers was condoned by more senior officers and what is now going to be done to make sure that this does not happen again.
Third, there needs to be a review of what was said in the operational briefings given to officers before they went on duty – was a clear message being given that one important function of the police was to facilitate peaceful and lawful protest and that that was all that most of the demonstrators would be wanting to do.
Fourth, there seems to be a default position where those briefing the press on behalf of the police seek to attack the character of those who have fallen victim to police actions – like the unfortunate Mr Tomlinson who was allegedly “drunk”, “aggressive”, “lived in a bail hostel” etc. The Met has form on this, particularly where someone has died at their hands. Another example is Roger Sylvester, who died in the back of a police van in Tottenham in the late 1990s – interestingly, the same doctor, who performed the initial examination on Mr Tomlinson which reached the apparently misleading conclusion that he had died of a heart attack, was involved in the Sylvester case and disciplined by the General Medical Council as a result.
Finally, the police service is going to have to come to terms with a new form of accountability: citizen journalists with mobile phone cameras. Isolated (or not so isolated) acts of unnecessary force or of disproportionate responses to particular situations are now likely to be recorded by passers-by on their mobile phones. This has meant in the case of the policing of the G20 demonstrations that all sorts of incidents (not just what happened in the run up to Mr Tomlinson’s death) have received wide media coverage. In the past individual police officers and the police service in general might have got away with instances of bad conduct because of disputed versions of what had happened. Now there are irrefutable records of what happened. Incidents are captured on mobile phones and within a short space of time can be transmitted around the world. This may ultimately be a better guarantee of the sort of policing that we should expect than any instructions issued by the high command at New Scotland Yard.