Ian Tomlinson: The man who was trying to get home

Trust in the police was plunging before the death of Ian Tomlinson and the resignation of Met Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick. David Randall asks why

You are a police officer on riot duty in the City of London for the G20 protests. It's nearly 7.30 in the evening, and you've been on the go, tense, and with adrenaline pumping, since the briefing at 4.30am. Boy, that was something – they really wound you up – made it sound as if Armageddon could kick off in Threadneedle Street at any moment. And this bloody uniform and helmet are hot, and even though the overtime's good, you just want to go home.

But you can't. Not until the last of these bloody protesters leave. Oh God, here comes one now. Strolling along in his Millwall top, hands in his pockets. Why won't he just get behind the lines? He's taking the piss. Go on, you go, get out of it! And you give him a shove. Silly bugger goes over like he's made of paper. Stays there, gets up, then goes over again. Stretcher, ambulance, gone. And then you hear he's died. Heart attack. Jesus! How were you to know he wasn't protesting, but just an old boozer on his way home. Of all the luck ...

Or maybe on that day you were a father of four with a bit of a drink problem. Which is why you don't live at home but in a hostel up Lindsey Road. It's warm, it's OK, and it's cheap. And it's where you go after you've had a long day on your feet selling Evening Standards outside Monument Tube station. And the hostel's where you want to go now, but you can't, because every route you try to take there are bloody coppers poncing about in their riot gear, acting like hoodies with night sticks, and telling you to get over there or piss off.

And everywhere protesters. You don't know, and don't really care, what they're protesting about, but it's all getting right up your nose because it's your city and you don't see why you can't walk the Queen's streets like you normally do. Then wallop! Over you go. Christ, you feel awful. Some copper's clattered you. Someone helps you up. You go on a bit, then, suddenly, nothing. And the next thing everyone knows, you're a headline. A case. A cause. A dear old dad who's been battered by the coppers and dies.

Somewhere, between these two extremes, the truth about the death of Ian Tomlinson lies. But finding its precise whereabouts won't be easy. Sure, there is film; there are witnesses; and there is a police force which, with its swift suspension of the officer who gave that shove, shows that some lessons have been learnt from the cases of Blair Peach, felled by a police radio at an Anti-Nazi League demonstration in 1979, and Jean Charles de Menezes, shot by a police squad which thought he was a terrorist.

But there is also instant myth-making and finger-wagging punditry that has formed its views at the pace of a rolling news channel rather than that of a coroner's court. And, most of all, there is the widespread idea that we have self-serving police forces whose word cannot be relied upon, whose competence is often questionable, and whose senior officers are rewarded out of all scale with their performance.

It is a view no one does more to promote than the police themselves, last week's example being Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick. Not only did he think "Top Secret" meant "display document on top so people could see how important you are", but he then departed with a pension worth, at the age of 49, £110,000 a year. No doubt directorships await.

So what, before the straight facts are completely hijacked, do we know of Ian Tomlinson and the events of Wednesday 1 April? Mr Tomlinson was 47, a Derbyshire native who moved to London in his teens, became a roofer, and who once lived on the Isle of Dogs with his wife, Julia, their four children, plus five of hers. More than 13 years ago, his drink problem caused him to leave home and live rough for a while, before starting work as a news vendor in the City and moving into a hostel near Smithfield. His friends called him "Tommo". His addiction to drink remained unconquered.

Mr Tomlinson spent most of the day of protests selling newspapers by Monument Tube, and the first evidence of his encounters with police are photographs taken a few hundred yards away in Lombard Street just after 6pm. He is seen standing in the middle of the street, apparently obstructing a police van, being moved away by officers, and, possibly, being pushed. Witness Ross Hardy said Mr Tomlinson had been drinking.

This evidence refutes earlier reports that Mr Tomlinson had not left his newspaper pitch until 7pm. Fully 80 minutes after his Lombard Street brush with the law, he is just a few hundred yards away, off Cornhill. Here, according to several witnesses, he is assaulted by police, allegedly hit with a baton. Then, less than 10 minutes later, as he walks down Royal Exchange Passage just in front of a line of riot police, he is shown, in pictures and video shot by an American, being roughly shoved from behind by one officer. Other footage broadcast by Channel 4 shows Mr Tomlinson being aggressively hit on the legs by an officer with a baton.

He fell awkwardly, cried out at police, "What the fuck are you doing?", was helped up by a protester, got to his feet, but went only a little further before collapsing again. With his face a deathly pale colour, and it being obvious he is in urgent need of attention, a protester rings for an ambulance. Reports vary about the degree of assistance from police, butMr Tomlinson was stretchered from the immediate vicinity. He died shortly afterwards.

The officer who gave the push, a member of the Met's Territorial Support Group, reportedly passed out from shock at home when he learned of Mr Tomlinson's death. The rest of the aftermath is now mainly a matter of public record, especially the police statements that showed, once again, the Met's capacity for self-harm.

There was the crude deceit that a hail of missiles from protesters prevented police leaping to Mr Tomlinson's immediate assistance; and the ones that followed, which reminded one of a recidivist being interviewed under caution who deadpans all questions "until my brief's here". Just as some approximation to the full story had to be dragged from the Met with the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, and still remains to be discovered with the shooting of barrister Mark Saunders in Chelsea.

And then there is much that we do not know. How long had the officer concerned been on duty? What was his level of riot training? What was Mr Tomlinson's medical history? Were any words exchanged between the officers and Mr Tomlinson prior to the shove? How many incidents of unduly aggressive policing took place that day but remain unknown because their recipients did not suffer a coronary? Was Mr Tomlinson really drunk, or was his shuffling gait a symptom of a man in the early stages of a heart attack? Was this the once-in-a-blue-moon, accidental consequence of the bolshie behaviour shown by either side when police and demonstrators clash?

Seeking the answers to these questions will now be the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Crown Prosecution Service and the coroner. The context in which they will do so raises an issue more intractable than even the precise causes of Ian Tomlinson's death. It is that, over the past decade or so, the relationship between public and police has been badly, and unprecedentedly, corroded.

Some of this is the fault of those with warrant cards, especially the Met. Here, seen at its worst in the de Menezes saga, a sort of old lags' culture obtains: you admit nothing until your dabs are proved in court to have been all over the offence in question (and then fail to act on the findings). Here, too, is a management that seems to spend much of its time suing each other, or threatening to do so, and then collecting large sums; where senior officers have pension arrangements that would not disgrace a banker; and where there is a look-after-your own attitude that is positively Masonic at times.

Nor are we free of blame, with our ever more publicly aggressive citizenry proclaiming their rights, and our expectation that a force, by definition, of conservative, tradition-respecting officers should constantly adapt to an ever-changing multicultural, multi-faith, multi-sexualised society.

And some of the greatest fault is that of the political class: forces obliged to use speed cameras as revenue-raisers rather than for road safety; and police stations battered by a permanent hailstorm of targets and new laws, both set centrally to placate the latest orthodoxy or catch a headline.

All that, plus continuously shifting priorities that never seem to include sending officers to deal with the crimes that most damage the quality of life in Middle England, such as household burglary, vandalism and noise. The result? A police force less trusted, more resented than at any time since the 19th century. You could see it in the near glee with which Assistant Commissioner Quick was attacked for displaying secret documents to a press camera, and you could feel it in the relish applied to the reporting of the G20 death.

There seems something very rotten in the dislocation between British society and its police. If the death of Ian Tomlinson serves to prompt a debate about that, then he will have performed a far greater service than some of the officers tasked with wielding not only batons, but also speed cameras, targets and asinine laws on our alleged behalf.

Timeline

1 April Ian Tomlinson collapses and dies at the G20 protests. The Met claims protesters threw bottles at officers trying to help him. The case is referred to the IPCC.

3 April A postmortem finds Mr Tomlinson died of a heart attack. City of London Police investigate.

5 April The IPCC criticises The Guardian for upsetting Mr Tomlinson's family by printing photographs and witness statements suggesting he was assaulted by police. Other journalists are told there is "nothing in the story".

6 April The IPCC confirms Mr Tomlinson "had contact" with the police.

7 April Video footage passed to The Guardian shows Mr Tomlinson being hit with a baton and being shoved in the back by a riot policeman.

8 April The IPCC reverses its decision to allow City police to investigate. It will launch a full criminal inquiry.

9 April The Met suspends the officer shown in the video, but 48 hours later he is still to be interviewed by the IPCC.

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