This is the line that’s always trotted out whenever a bent or violent or racist police officer is outed. It’s also the line invariably parroted by the tabloid press. We shouldn’t buy into it, as Jonathan Moses argues in this piece:
The charity Inquest notes that there have been just over 1400 deaths in police custody or following police contact since 1990 and not a single conviction of manslaughter. Clearly not all of these will be due to incidences of violence and neglect – but Tomlinson’s case is only one amongst many examples of police brutality leading to death. The public order unit Harwood was a part of, the TSG (Territorial Support Group), claims it recruits from the ranks “on merit, and much emphasis is placed upon their personal ability, motivation and good communication skills.” Yet Harwood already had ten complaints to his name by the time he joined the unit, and had been quietly dropped from the Met once before on medical grounds before disciplinary proceedings could begin against him.
Between 2005-2009, 5000 complaints were made against the TSG, with only 9 upheld, leading the Metropolitan Police Authority (the Met’s watchdog) to warn that TSG officers were seen as “practically immune” to criticism. Anecdotally, innumerable incidents of TSG violence are seared into my memory, nearly all of them involving unthreatening, unarmed young people posing no danger to the officers in question. I’ve come away with the feeling that a significant proportion of TSG officers, are, as London Assembly member Jenny Jones said of Harwood yesterday “thug[s] in uniform”, looking for the legitimacy of a police badge and the impunity of the legal system.
It is worth thinking about the culture which feeds this legitimacy, often facilitated by the mainstream media. As witnessed in the example of the Standard, the rule of thumb is that whilst protesters will inevitably be described as “violent” the moment that, say, a window is broken, police attacking protesters with batons, tasers, CS spray and shield strikes are never described as such. If it’s mentioned at all, it will always be under the pseudonym “robust”. The double standards are also apparent in the justice system. For protesters, what would be minor infractions in the context of everyday life become serious criminal offences in the context of public order. For the police, it is the other way around: Harwood used the abstract context of disorder on the day to justify his specific actions, which included pushing over a BBC cameraman, then another person who was helping someone on the floor, before going on to attack Tomlinson.
In some ways, the Territorial Support Group resembles News International’s journalists in the years before the Leveson Inquiry. They believed themselves immune from prosecution and so felt able to do whatever they wanted. Milly Dowler’s family were victims of that mindset. Ian Tomlinson was a victim of its police equivalent.