Cleared in court - but police poster boy's still under a cloud

It took a jury just 20 minutes to clear John Buttress of fraud after the high-flying chief inspector was ‘stitched up’ for exposing alleged bullying. But his ordeal is far from over, he tells Helen Carter

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The Independent Online

In a glittering 20-year career in the police, John Buttress was a poster boy for his force, helping to protect Britain from terrorists and winning praise for “extreme courage” after chasing down a gunman on the loose in Stockport despite being unarmed himself.

But the 48-year-old chief inspector now appears a shadow of his former self after daring to turn whistleblower to expose what he claimed was bullying and corruption by senior staff at Greater Manchester Police.

In response, he says, he was “stitched up” by colleagues, who wrongly accused him of insider share dealing and then had him prosecuted for mortgage fraud – a charge that a jury took just 20 minutes to throw out last week. One insider at the force allegedly told him it was the “worst case of corporate bullying” in the history of the force.

In an interview at his partner’s flat in Manchester, Mr Buttress apologised for being unshaven and seemed pale and haunted. Tearful at times, he admitted the accusations had affected him so badly that he had attempted suicide.

The problems began, he said, when he clashed with his superior, Superintendent Steve Nibloe, while working in Bolton. “I realised something was amiss when I started there and mentioned his name to a colleague and he looked cowed and physically unwell,” he said.

In 2012, Mr Buttress wrote a 13-page document detailing his allegations of bullying, corruption and cronyism involving senior officers, including Mr Nibloe. He said he expected a “full investigation” into his claims. He hadn’t anticipated that he would become the subject of an inquiry by the force’s counter-corruption unit, leading to his arrest in March 2013.

For a police officer with 20 years’ service, he said, tears welling, being arrested in front of his colleagues was “awful”. “I felt utterly humiliated,” he added, shaking his head as his voice cracked with emotion. “Immediately after, I just felt utter shock. I couldn’t believe it.”

The accusations against him initially centred on a stop-and-search project, unpopular in some quarters, that he had been working on. It aimed to make the process quicker and more transparent, with officers using a radio handset instead of making a paper note about the search later. The communications firm Sepura was identified as a potential contractor.

Mr Buttress said he showed a leaflet about the company to Mr Nibloe, and “the next thing I know I was called into HQ about insider share dealing involving the company”.

The allegations against him were pursued “vigorously and maliciously”, he said. The insider trading case was dropped – he had no shares in Sepura – but inquiries into his finances led to the fraud charge being brought to court, which he said was “an absolute scandal”.

His mortgage on his home near Wrexham, North Wales, had supposedly been obtained without his telling the lender that he occasionally let it out to holidaymakers. During the £1m inquiry, 30 officers took part in six searches, and a police helicopter took aerial pictures of the farmhouse.

A page of evidence from the mortgage company that would have proved his innocence was left out of the prosecution case; it was highlighted by the defence as they won the case at Liverpool Crown Court. After he was cleared, he said he had looked at the jurors and felt the “warmth of human compassion”.

“It makes me feel ashamed. I don’t want to damage the reputation of Greater Manchester Police, but this needs exposing,” Mr Buttress said.

He spoke of the great distress the case caused his elderly parents, who are in their eighties. “It nearly killed them,” he said. “That’s not an exaggeration.” The ordeal also took a heavy toll on him and he had nightmares about being in prison. “I’d have been on a wing with the sex offenders,” he said, quietly. Such thoughts had led to a suicide attempt.

In court, he became jittery when he saw two unknown men in suits, who turned out to be witnesses. “I thought they were coming to arrest me.” It is a fear that has persisted. Whenever a police car drives past, “I jump out of my skin,” he said.  “I worry that if I go through a red light, I’m going to be arrested. It’s been a very draining experience.”

Mr Buttress, a former merchant navy officer, had built up 20 years’ unblemished service with Greater Manchester Police. At the start of his career, he was fast-tracked for promotion, rising through the ranks to become a chief inspector in 2004.

In the early hours of Christmas Day 2004, he chased a man brandishing a handgun through the centre of Stockport. Even though he was unarmed, Mr Buttress managed to wrestle the man to the ground and arrest him. CCTV footage of the incident was later used to make the case for gun control legislation to be tightened. Two years later, he was seconded to the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism in London.

His record was bolstered by senior officers from other forces, who gave character statements to the court. Craig Mackey, deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, described him as “a highly professional and committed” officer, while Andy Holt, deputy chief constable at South Yorkshire Police, said he was “hard working” and there was no doubt about his “honesty and integrity”.

However, while the court case is over, Mr Buttress’s ordeal is not. A statement from Deputy Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said Greater Manchester Police respected the court’s decision. But it added, with reference to the circumstances leading to the trial: “In addition to the criminal justice process the police service has its own internal code of ethics and standards of professional behaviour.

“CI Buttress’s actions will now be subject to formal internal assessment to establish whether he may have a case to answer for gross misconduct, misconduct or no case to answer.”

The statement added that Mr Buttress’s bullying claims, including those against Mr Nibloe, had been formally investigated and reviewed three times and that “in all three stages we found no evidence to substantiate the allegation of bullying. GMP will always take allegations about its staff seriously and where necessary will carry out criminal investigations.”

Mr Buttress, a father of three, said that throughout the legal process, he had been confident that he would prove his innocence and that he now intends to return to work.

He believes senior officers “backed the wrong horse” and should have tackled his grievances about bullying instead of targeting him. The force’s counter-corruption unit should itself be investigated, he said.

“I can hold my head up high,” he said. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”