John Rentoul: An unjust case of the police protecting their own

PC Harwood should never have been on the streets in a uniform

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"Call this justice?" the Mirror angrily demanded on its front page on Friday, after Simon Harwood was acquitted of the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson, the Big Issue seller, at the G20 protests three years ago. Well, yes, actually, I do.

Justice can be messy. One jury, at the inquest last year, concluded that Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed, on the same test – "beyond reasonable doubt" –as that on which last week's jury decided that he had not been. There was no question as to the identity of Tomlinson's assailant, as PC Harwood admitted that he had struck and pushed him, so the two juries just came down on different sides of whether this had caused Tomlinson's death.

That is because it was genuinely hard to say, beyond reasonable doubt, that the assault caused the death. The court heard a lot of evidence about Tomlinson's alcoholism and poor health and, not having been there to hear it all, I do not know what I would have decided had I been on the jury.

That was not the only cause of the Mirror's fury, however. The disclosure of previous accusations against Harwood of misconduct and the use of excessive force, about which the jury was not told, added to the feeling that the wrong verdict had been reached. This often happens. Days of lurid coverage, then an acquittal and publication of the accused's previous. It must be quite a factor in undermining public faith in the courts, because of the common intuition: "He's done it before, therefore he's done it again." But that is not justice. That is prejudice, in the literal sense of prejudging the defendant. It is not proof that Harwood's assault caused Tomlinson's death. The Independent's front-page headline was fairer: "Not guilty. But no innocent."

So, yes, last week's court case was justice. But that does not mean that we should not be very angry that a man such as Harwood was allowed to serve in the Metropolitan Police. The really shocking story of this case was that he avoided disciplinary action by taking "medical retirement" in 2001, before returning to uniformed duty at the Met four years later. Accused of assaulting the driver of a car with which he had a minor collision when off duty, he pleaded injury, on account of a motorbike accident three years earlier, to take retirement – and secured a civilian job with the Met three days later, returning to uniformed duty via a spell as an officer in the Surrey Police.

This was not the miraculous self-reinvention of a lone operator. He must have been aided and protected by his colleagues and superiors in a tribal culture that looks after its own. That culture would have protected Harwood after Tomlinson's death if it had not been for an investment fund manager (a good banker) who recorded video of the incident and handed it to the press.

The police are one of the least reformed public services. Most police officers are public spirited, of course, but they work for a service run in their interests, and in which the interests of the public too often come second. If you have ever tried to hand anything in to a police station, you will know what I mean. The Police Federation defends the sectional interests of its members with a shameless ruthlessness of the kind that Margaret Thatcher abolished in the trade union movement.

The rest of the criminal justice system is similarly run for the convenience of judges and officials rather than the public. It is a minor example but infuriating that Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce have made several trips to court already, taking up the salaried time of court officials and police, to say what their names are and how they intend to plead. Again, reform is painfully slow. Nick Herbert, the Justice minister, has announced that some pointless hearings are being abolished, but most remain.

Thatcher and Tony Blair had a simple approach to reforming the police, which was to do it very slowly and to ease the path with lots of public money. Some progress has been made. Some of the worst excesses of expensive overtime or early retirement on full pension, and using it to avoid disciplinary action, have been curbed. It should not now be possible to escape discipline by leaving the force. Racism in the police force has been tackled seriously since the Stephen Lawrence case. But can we really be confident that people like Harwood, who should never have been on the streets in a uniform, are not still serving in the police? Not yet.

The coalition may be braver than its predecessors. Its policy is elections for police commissioners, taking place, in England outside London, and Wales, in November. Paradoxically, most will be elected on a Labour ticket, despite the party's former opposition to the idea.

The big question is whether these commissioners will make the police more accountable to the people that they serve. The American experience may not inspire huge confidence, but anything that changes the incentives under which the police work, and which offers to break open a closed system of sectional interests, is worth a try. I hope that the first thing Commissioner John Prescott will do is root out all the Harwoods and potential Harwoods in the Humberside force.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/johnrentoul

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