Ian Tomlinson (Synthesis and Commentary)

Posted: December 4, 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.
Tomlinson’s death is a widely studied and well-known case of alleged police misconduct, in which the victim died moments after being in contact with police. The incident occurred in London during the G20 summit protests, and was captured from different angles on both video and still photographs, and was seen by multiple eyewitnesses. Not only were the violent actions of the police officer apparently unwarranted, but the events following both immediately and as a part of the resulting investigation have all seen allegations of police misconduct.
Ian Tomlinson was a middle-aged white male employed casually at a newsstand in London, having been separated from his second wife for several years as a result of alcoholism. His health was deteriorated as a result of alcohol abuse and extended periods of homelessness, and he was living at a shelter at the time. He was uninvolved in the protests happening at the G20 meetings, and was merely on his way home from work at the time of the incident.
Police Constable Simon Harwood, the police officer who was allegedly involved in the events just before Tomlinson’s death, reportedly has faced two previous misconduct hearings. The first, happening over a decade prior to the Tomlinson incident, involved allegations from a motorist claiming Harwood used excessive force.
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.
The events following the death of Tomlinson, particularly the actions of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, underscore the difficulties in police reform and the prevention of police deviance. The IPCC, formed as a result of the 2002 Police Reform Act, was intended to erase the public image of corruption in the organization which came before it, the Police Complaints Authority. It is run independently of the police and is under an entirely separate division of government. None of the investigators in the IPCC are police officers, and by law have never worked for the police in the past. This separation was designed to create a public perception of impartiality; however, the wrongful killing of Ian Tomlinson and the mishandling of the case which followed caused permanent damage to the reputation of the IPCC.
It is important to note, however, that the investigation was not placed under IPCC control until a week after the incident, and was under control of the City of London police force until that point. In fact, the city coroner excluded the IPCC from the first postmortem examination, and appointed the controversial Dr Mohmed Saeed Sulema Patel to perform the procedure. The doctor, educated at the University of Zambia and having spent many years conducting such procedures for the police, had been previously investigated for misconduct in the case of Sally White, in which a young woman’s body was found naked, bruised, and bleeding; Patel found her cause of death to be an unrelated heart attack. Nevertheless, the City of London police retained Patel, and he conducted the postmortem on Tomlinson, declaring him to also have died of a heart attack, unrelated to the trauma he suffered from being struck by a baton and shoved to the ground just minutes before his death. It was only following the publication of the video showing Tomlinson’s assault that the case was transferred from the London police to the IPCC, who ordered a second postmortem, which found the trauma from the fall to have caused internal bleeding and organ damage, killing Tomlinson. The third and fourth examinations only confirmed these results. Patel is now suspended and faces several charges of misconduct, raising questions about why he was assigned to the case to begin with.
Given that three postmortem examinations had found Tomlinson’s internal injuries to be the cause of death, and that the baton strike had caused severe bruising, it was surprising that for nearly two years following the incident, the Crown Prosecution Service refused to prosecute Simon Harwood for his role in the death. They cited the first examination by Patel as being contradictory to those which followed, and said this would cause issues in finding clear evidence. It was more than two years following the death of Ian Tomlinson that PC Simon Harwood was charged with manslaughter, to which he has pleaded not guilty and for which he will be tried in the summer of 2012. The decision to prosecute came only after years of pressure from the media, the public, as well as several prominent officials and even the second medical examiner. This raises questions about the impartiality of the Crown Prosecution Service in its decision, as well as the way in which the investigation was managed.
It was not only the investigation which raised serious questions about police conduct in the death of Ian Tomlinson. The very reasons for which he encountered the police have been investigated, raising doubts about both police culture and police policy when dealing with protests such as those at the G20. One reason for which police have been criticized is the tactics they employed in the protest situation, particularly containment, or kettling. In containment, lines of police officers herd the crowd into small spaces, trapping them within a certain area. This tactic is compared to a kettle, in that the containment of boiling water creates pressure within the kettle. Kettling often leads to undesirable situations for people entirely uninvolved in the protests which police are attempting to control. It was exactly in this situation which Ian Tomlinson found himself, as he was simply trying to walk home, but was caught in front of a police cordon trying to kettle in a crowd of protestors. Such a tactic is unfortunately often used in modern demonstrations by the police, as was the case in the G20 protests, after which the Toronto Police promised to never again use kettling.
It is important to question not only the tactics, but also the culture and society behind the actions of police in a given situation. While kettling is what the police were involved in at the time, the entire situation was the result of an adversarial attitude adopted by police forces in protest scenarios, an attitude which has been demonstrated more recently with the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations around the world. In even the most liberal nations, lawful protests are met by large police forces in full riot gear, driving the culture of paramilitary responses to otherwise peaceful demonstrations. Simon Harwood himself was a constable in the Metropolitan Police Service, specifically the Territorial Support Group, a special unit set up to manage difficult protests and riots. Perhaps without the anger created by the us-versus-them attitude of riot police in protest situations, Harwood would never have been in the position nor have had the urge to strike Tomlinson with his baton and then shove him upon the concrete.
Ian Tomlinson’s death was a significant factor in changes and reforms to the police systems in the United Kingdom, particularly with regards to police tactics used at protests. The Metropolitan Police decided to release a report within months of the incident, and found that internalized police attitudes affect modern protest situations. The report acknowledges that calling out police dressed in full riot gear enflames otherwise peaceful protests, and that police must take use of different tactics to prevent violence. The IPCC, while slow to act, is not under review for its actions. However, justice has begun to act on both Dr Patel, who has been charged with misconduct, and Simon Harwood, who has been charged with manslaughter. Perhaps, had it been for different attitudes and cultures regarding protests, along with different tactics in dealing with them, the entire situation would have turned out differently and no death would have occurred that day in London.

  1. Jo Wright says:

    Houston, Texas, USA, has a severe problem with abusive law enforcement.
    Seated in a conference room, recording as requested by the attorney, someone told Richard Kovalchuk that CPS was in a private meeting. Debbie, grandma, and her friends, with Rachie’s parents were the only people in the conference room until I arrived with the Rachie..

    Within 10 seconds of speaking, Kovalchuk crashed the camera and my right arm against the conference room, he continued shoving me from behind until I was in the hallway.

    Once I was in the hallway, Kovalchuk grabbed me by both of my shoulders and began slamming me backward into the protruding corner of the wall. The MRI reflects a broken humerus and ripped rotator cuff. No where could I find information about the dollar worth of my dominant right arm.

    Do you happen to know a good source for determining the dollar amount for losing an entire arm or 75% of the dominant hand?

    Thank you,

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