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London riots hero who was put on police wanted poster wins damages

Housing worker who helped victims to safety came close to losing his job after officers’ error

A hero of the Hackney riots who helped distressed and confused victims to safety has been awarded libel damages after his face was put on a police wanted poster.

Leslie Austin, a council housing worker, was commended and thanked by several police officers for his actions during the riots on 8 August 2011, but later saw his face pictured on a poster seeking to identify people "involved in the disorder".

In the High Court today he was awarded damages for libel by the Metropolitan Police. The size of the award was kept secret, though he was understood to have been seeking up to £50,000.

Publication of his photograph had caused him considerable and repeated embarrassment and distress and on several occasions he had to explain to his employers, shopkeepers and local people that it was a mistake.

He came close to losing his job with his employers demanding evidence of his innocence. A letter had to be written by police assuring his employers that he was not a suspect.

The wanted poster, headed "Operation Withern Identity Sought", was put up in shops in East London and Mr Austin saw one in May 2012. He complained to the police who promised that they were about to be taken down, but they remained up until June 15. On June 7 the Hackney gazette featured his photograph as one of the suspected rioters sought by police despite Mr Austin having been assured he had been eliminated from inquiries.

"This was extremely distressing to the claimant. Not only was it false in his case, but he felt his safety to be at risk as there had been revenge attacks following the riots," said Matthew Nicklin QC.

During the riots Mr Austin spotted a terrified woman clutching a baby in a building close to a burning car and he dashed in to escort them to safety before, despite thickening smoke making breathing difficult, going back into the premises to check if anyone else needed help.

Earlier he had seen one of his elderly clients caught between the police lines and the rioters. He helped her get past the trouble and took her home.

In documents filed as part of the case it was stated that polce had thanked him for his actions on the night of the riot: "On three separate occasions police officers thanked him for his assistance."

Later, when the confusion over the wanted posters was raised, he was publicly praised by the police. "The public-spirited attitude of this member of the public is outstanding and I apologise on behalf of the Met for any distress caused," said Detective Sergeant Ian Coleman.

David Hirst, for the police, said that, as a result of the poster campaign, it had been possible to identify and bring to justice thousands of individuals. The police have apologised to Mr Austin.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said: "As soon as we were made aware that Mr Austin had not been involved in the disorder, but had in fact been trying to assist those caught up in it, we took steps to remove all of these posters and images from circulation, though we did not do so effectively enough."