Finally, eight years after its formation, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPPC) is to be given the power to compel police officers to testify as witnesses. You would hope that as public servants the police would want to comply with an investigation in the same way we as citizens would be expected to assist the police with their investigations. However, the admission that not one of the 31 officers present at the shooting of Mark Duggan has attended an interview as a witness underlines just how important it is for the police watchdog to have this power.
When someone is shot or killed by the police it is inevitable that community tensions will result. To avoid rumours and conspiracy theories stoking up those tensions, the community need to see that the actions of the police are subject to rigorous investigation and that the police themselves are not beyond the law. Therefore, you would assume that they would take statements of what happened immediately and ensure all evidence is collected and stored properly. You would hope supervisors and senior officers would be on hand to make sure this is all done to a high standard and procedures are followed.
The admission that a firearms officer who attended the shooting of Mark Duggan was told not to make a statement for more than three months after the event follows a depressingly familiar pattern. The fact that he and two other officers were apparently told by a supervisor – a supervisor the officer is now unable to recall – to not provide a statement immediately raises questions about the conduct of police officers following major incidents and feeds into the perception that it is one rule for the public and another for the police.
I’ve become too familiar with stories of officers being instructed not to make a statement until they have had a chance to coordinate with their fellow officers present. The revelations in the Hillsborough report that police officers altered their statements reinforce the case for officers to provide statements immediately and independently, especially following incidents where there is a death or near death involving the police.
I have been told by lawyers who work on civil liberties cases that they very often see the exact same wording cropping up in police statements. From the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, to Ian Tomlinson to Mark Duggan we hear that officers sat down together to write their statements. While this may be the normal practice for the police, such collusion looks fishy to the public.
The case of Liam Albert shows that police secrecy is dangerous. Met Police officers refused to hand over potential photographic evidence to Surrey police officers investigating a fatal high-speed police chase. It was found at the inquest that the Met made “a material contribution” to his death. Documents submitted revealed that after the crash that led to the death of Mr Albert, Surrey Police officers tried to retrieve the mobile phone of one of the Met officers who had been pursuing him in order to see photographs which might have provided evidence of the scene. Met officers left the scene after refusing to hand over the phone and were pursued to Esher police station by Surrey officers to try to seize the phone. When the phone was handed over the photographs had been deleted. Were a member of the public with potential evidence to behave in such a way, I suspect they would be arrested for obstruction of justice.
There is also the shocking case of Oneyeka Obi, the 16-year-old boy who was pushed through a shop window by a Met officer and then arrested for assaulting an officer. The case of Mr Obi led to his acquittal and the dismissal of another Met officer after it was found that he provided a false account of the incident to support his colleague, claiming Mr Obi’s arm had been raised at his colleague’s head. CCTV footage of the incident revealed that contrary to the officer’s statement, Mr Obi had not been acting in a threatening manner and his hands had in fact been in his pockets at the time.
Hillsborough is not a one off. While we wait for the legislation to come into force the Mayor should act immediately and lead the way. Mr Johnson should instruct the Met that officers must independently provide a statement, as swiftly as possible following an incident, to ensure an accurate account is taken while fresh in the officer’s mind. The Mayor should also instruct the Met to look into introducing disciplinary sanctions for those officers who refuse to be interviewed following an incident. The police do make mistakes and we have to cut them some slack, as they do an incredibly difficult job. However, the public will only support the police if they trust the police and this reform is a way of guaranteeing that we can.