The death of Ian Tomlinson (Analysis)

Posted: October 31, 2011 by jeffield in Ian Tomlinson

The death of Ian Tomlinson on April 1st 2009 has created a great deal of controversy and has severely dented the British public’s trust of the Metropolitan Police Service and shocked many who have seen the video of the death online or on television. The 47-year old newspaper vendor was on his way home from work, when PC Simon Harwood of the Metropolitan Police, an officer with previous allegations of excessive force on his record, struck Tomlinson from behind with a baton, then proceeded to shove the man to the ground, minutes after which he died of internal injuries.

The police case which followed was full of blunders and intentional missteps, inconsistent results and accusations of corruption, the details of which I presented in my previous blog post published one month ago. The purpose of this writing is not to rehash the specific facts presented in the previous post, but to discuss the importance of the case in relation to several published books and articles regarding police deviance and corruption. Since the posting of my previous writing, there have also been developments in the matter, which I will be discussing.

It is because of the presence of a great many handheld video recorders at the scene and meticulous reporting by the Guardian news outlet that the case even came to light; had it not been for the media outcry, the police would have had the death ruled accidental and as the result of a heart attack. This is indeed what they did immediately following the death, a position from which they backed down following the intense media and public pressure regarding PC Harwood’s actions. The employment of a discredited coroner for the autopsy, as well as the conscious muddling of information regarding the death, have led to allegations of corruption and police deviance, adding one new case to the many which have discredited the Metropolitan Police over its lengthy history.

The case of corruption and the unlawful death of Ian Tomlinson is by no means the first major allegation of corruption within the Metropolitan Police, the enormous police service which serves Greater London with the exception of the very core, which is the jurisdiction of the City of London Police. Maurice Punch, leading author on police corruption both past and present, details this history of corruption in his 2009 book, Police Corruption: Deviance, accountability and reform in policing. In chapter 5, entitled “The UK: London, miscarriages of justice and Northern Ireland”, Punch investigates the history of the Metropolitan Police and their constantly shifting image in the eye of the public.

The origins of the Metropolitan Police lie in the 1829 formation of the New Police of the Metropolis, intended from the outset to be a solution to the corruption problems within the previous patchwork system of police forces in London. Continental Europe, particularly France, has police systems which were riddled with corruption and public mistrust; the new Met was designed to prevent that. It had no detectives at the beginning, and its constables did not carry firearms on patrol. It was seen as vital in the eyes of the Home Secretary at the time that the public perception of the London police force was quite positive, which at the time it was indeed (Punch 126).

The Met successfully upheld its corruption-free reputation for almost 50 years, until it was rocked by the emergence of evidence that its internal Criminal Investigation Department was in fact quite corrupt indeed (Punch 127). While numerous reforms were passed following a number of high-profile cases of corruption and police deviance in the following century, the late-1960s and early 1970s saw a great deal of turmoil within the force, leading Commissioner Robert Mark to implement wide ranging reforms at the start of the decade. This saw the establishment of A10, the division which was to investigate all complaints regarding officers of the Met (Punch 133).

While it is true that the reforms may have reduced corruption in the force, Stephen Mastrofsky provides evidence in his 2004 report Controlling Street-Level Police Discretion that sudden changes and revolutions within a policing organization do not take hold immediately, and require a change in organizational structure and behavior to have effect. Acts of police deviance do not occur in isolation from the overall policing structure and environment; the attitude of the Commissioner and the very goals and informal policies of the organization can influence the behavior of officers on the street (Mastrofski 105).

Commissioner Mark’s formation of the A10 was the precursor, decades ago, to the modern Independent Police Complaints Commissioner, the IPCC, which now heads inquiries into cases of police misconduct. The inquiry into PC Harwood’s alleged wrongful actions in the death of Ian Tomlinson was conducted by the IPCC, which occurred in the spring of 2011 in front of a jury.

Willem De Lint and Alan Hall’s 2009 book Intelligent Control: Developments in public order policing in Canada also focuses on the role of discretion in police actions on the streets. In chapter 8, “Intelligent Control”, they present the Canadian angle to police control, particularly the importance of a dynamic and shifting strategy. They believe that in a democracy such as Canada, much like the United Kingdom, police must display “coercive capacity” only when absolutely required, in order to maintain positive public relations (De Lint and Hall 277). Modern news and social media facilitates the spreading of information as well as grievances at a pace never seen before, thus paving the way for the reaction to Ian Tomlinson’s death. The coercive actions of one police officer, which in a past century would not have become well publicized, are now available for millions to view online.

It is the power of public opinion which brought PC Harwood and the Metropolitan Police to account over the death of Ian Tomlinson; without it, his death may simply have been conveniently ruled as being of natural causes and the police force would have continued on. The 2011 inquiry headed by the IPCC found the death to be wrongful (Crown Prosecution Service). This month, the October of 2011, Simon Harwood pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter; his trial will commence in the summer of 2012 (Malik). The long-term implications of the case on the Metropolitan Police are yet to be seen, although the impact of modern communications upon police actions in the public eye is evident.

Works Cited

Crown Prosecution Service. “CPS statement following conclusion of inquest into death of Ian Tomlinson.” (2011). Web. <www.cps.gov.uk>.

De Lint, Willem and Alan Hall. Intelligent control: developments in public order policing in Canada. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2009. Print.

Malik, Shiv. “Police officer denies killing Ian Tomlinson.” The Guardian (2011). Web. 20 October 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/oct/17/police-officer-ian-tomlinson-g20&gt;.

Mastrofski, Stephen D. “Controlling Street-Level Police Discretion.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (2004): 100-118. Print.

Punch, Maurice. Police Corruption: Deviance, accountability and reform in policing. Portland: Willan Publishing, 2009. Print.

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