A year ago today Ian Tomlinson died. He was the latest in a long line of people who have died at the hands of the police. Also on that day hundreds of people were assaulted by police using batons and shields, and thousands were denied the right to move around their city and forced into ‘kettles’, again this is part of very long history of police activity that shows that the attitude of police is not that they are their to uphold the law, but that they ARE the law, and the people are, albeit to varying degrees, outside it.
At a vigil for Ian Tomlinson the next day a video camera caught an incident in which Sgt Delroy Smellie slapped and then hit a young woman with a baton, so far he has been the only police officer to face charges, yesterday he was acquitted of assault, Judge Wickham said: “I am satisfied he honestly believed it was necessary to use force to defend himself.”. In a way the acquittal of Sgt Smellie was correct – the police as a group are taught to fear everyone in these kind of situations and to expect the worst, they are given the tools to deal with this (physical, psychological and legal) and, unsurprisingly, they use them.
The officers dealing with Ian Tomlinson were in the same mindset, they were given no room for making sensible judgements as individuals because the culture of the body they are part of had already made its mind up. At protests there’s frequently an obvious macho culture among police, a strong ethic of ‘protecting their own’ and a relish at having the opportunity to put into practice some of the training that they don’t normally get to use. I would go as far to say that for many of the police officers, protests like this are a golden opportunity to ‘crack some heads’ with impunity. The lack of action over Tomlinson’s death and the acquittal of Smellie can only reinforce this.
In reaction to the media frenzy over these incidents (and make no mistake it was a reaction to media, and NOT to the events themselves) some sections of the police decided to make a very public showing of ‘softly softly’ policing. At the Climate Camp in August they were conspicuous by their absence, and the HMIC report made many suggestions of how to ‘adapt to protest’. But nothing has really changed – the police as a body still see people, social movements and protest as a threat to be managed, rather than a democratic necessity. And individual judgement of police officers is still suppressed as part of a groupthink that divides the world into us and them.
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