Closing ranks over the murder of a colleague

The vengeful, corrupt police behind the relentless pursuit of Winston Silcott have done the Met no favours
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The Independent Online

If you want to know who killed PC Blakelock, you won't find that out by watching Who Killed PC Blakelock? This 90-minute documentary, showing on BBC2 tonight, has many qualities to commend it. But the ability to answer the urgent question it poses in its title, is not one of them.

PC Blakelock was murdered at the Broadwater Farm Riots in 1985, a victim of what was probably the most vicious mob violence seen in 20th century Britain. Even though two decades have passed since he was killed, it is still hard to accept that the names of PC Blakelock's killers, and the sequence of events which led to the fatal attack on him, may never be known.

PC Blakelock's widow, Elizabeth Johnson, who has since remarried, remains certain that the mystery of his death will one day be solved. The police, also reluctant to accept that they have failed to solve this most totemic of crimes against one of their own officers, recently launched a third investigation. If they are making much progress, then few people have been made aware of it.

Many people, it is safe to assume, were involved in PC Blakelock's death. Police witnesses, indeed, saw for themselves that a whole group of people had set upon their tragic colleague. But only one man's name remains inextricably linked with PC Blakelock's murder. Winston Silcott was convicted of the murder in 1987. Yet while his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1991, a substantial number of people still refuse to accept his innocence.

Predictably, therefore, the usual conflation of unnamed police officers and biased print media has got together once again to orchestrate the usual "controversy" that appears around any event involving Mr Silcott. The documentary, taking a one-and-a-half hour bite out of BBC2's prime-time schedule, is being condemned, sight unseen, as a scandal.

One "former colleague of the murdered PC, who still serves with Scotland Yard", told the media that "as far as everyone in the Met is concerned, this is sick. Silcott is a killer. That has been proved in court. And just because his conviction for PC Blakelock's murder was overturned, that doesn't change the fact that he has killed another man in cold blood. So why on earth is the BBC giving him airtime? Is it now acceptable to interview murderers?"

"Another man in cold blood" refers to Anthony Smith, whom Silcott maintains he stabbed at a party in self defence. The jury did not accept that this was the case. But even so, Mr Silcott has served his tariff for the killing of Mr Smith, plus a further four years - generally accepted as being the consequence of hostile opinions about his successful appeal against the Blakelock conviction. There is no reason at all why he should not be interviewed by the BBC on the subject of MPC Blakelock, Mr Smith or any other matter, especially since he has accepted no payment. The anonymous police officers who cannot accept this do their service continuing damage.

Other officers, however, appear to have a different, more constructive attitude. Many of them have taken part in this documentary, and it is the contributions of these police officers which makes Who Killed PC Blakelock? compelling. The various men involved in the programme are often disarmingly, shockingly honest. Their various pieces of testimony provide an invaluable picture of the atmosphere in the months leading up to the riot, and the course of events on the night itself.

One officer, Sergeant Bob Hughes, is candid about how he decided that his unit should take short riot shields, because if they took tall ones they'd "end up at the front". When a gobsmacked journalist repeats what he has said back to him, the retired sergeant grins, unrepentant. "It was one of my better decisions," he maintains.

Other officers also make it clear that they were utterly unprepared for the situation they found themselves in. They speak of their fear, of their disbelief, and of their frustration as the events of the evening unfolded.

Officers had been stood down in the afternoon, riot police had been sent home, a contingency plan detailing what should happen to contain Broadwater farm in the event of a riot was not put into action, and the Wood Green control room that co-ordinated the effort - which was cobbled together on the hoof - was unable to cope with the demands made upon it.

Most poignant is the testimony of Steve Martin and Richard Coombes, who were the other two men caught in the confrontation in which PC Blakelock lost his life. PC Coombes was critically injured as well, while PC Martin, a 19-year-old probationer at the time, was only in London to finish his training. None of the three knew anything about the complicated geography of Broadwater Farm estate. "It was a bit of a laugh really," said PC Martin, "because we were only probationers and community officers. We didn't know what to expect at all."

They didn't expect to be cornered by a mob of people, with their faces covered, carrying bottles and knives, as they attempted to protect a fire crew. They also didn't expect them to be chanting "Kill the bill! Kill, kill the pigs!" But they were, and they did.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, in the early hours of the morning, Sir Kenneth Newman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, visited the scene. One officer explains how one by one, everyone slammed their car doors against him. "No one wanted to speak to him," he said scathingly, "except the bag-carriers and the toilet-seat wipers."

In the immediate aftermath of the killing, it seems clear from their response to the Commissioner that the police understood that they had been victims of a botched police operation by very senior officers as much as they had been victims of an angry mob.

It would be wrong to suggest that the documentary implies that one answer to the question Who Killed PC Blakelock? is "police inexperience and inefficiency". But at the same time, the closing of ranks and the desperation to find a single scapegoat that have marked the Broadwater Farm investigation are easier to understand when looked at as a displacement activity by a police force too shocked and frightened to have it suggested that they made their own contributions to the death of a popular and hard-working father of three.

Perhaps some of the policemen who took part in the documentary in good faith - many of them now retired - would themselves have hesitated to be so forthright if they had known that the cumulative voices of all who had taken part would give such an awful shape to the narrative.

My hope is that they would not choose to withhold their testimony, with the wisdom of hindsight. The sniping, vengeful, corrupt members of the police force who have seemed to moil behind the relentless pursuit of Winston Silcott have done the Metropolitan police no favours.

The officers in the documentary, in all their various ways, come across as a bunch of decent, intelligent, likable, honest men. They inject new insight into our understanding of that terrible night. They are direct, they cut through the politics, and they move the story forward. Suddenly it appears possible that some day, maybe, the crucial question of the documentary's title will be properly answered.