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

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


"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.;

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Application Developer

£20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in the centre of Glasgow,...

Recruitment Genius: Production Engineering Manager

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Joinery Shop Foreman

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Joinery Shop Foreman is required to join a p...

Recruitment Genius: Bench Joiner

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Bench Joiner is required to join a privately...

Day In a Page

Read Next

For the sake of the millions of girls who miss vital schooling during their periods, we must dismantle the 'menstrual taboo'

Emily Wilson Smith

Rick Santorum’s presidential bid isn’t funny, it’s terrifying

Sirena Bergman
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada