Servants or Masters? Who is in charge?
CIVIL RIGHTS campaigner Shami Chakrabarti. Targetted by reactionaries, and by police delving through MP's correspondence.
WHO is in charge of the police in this country?
HOW do they keep acquiring new powers?
ARE they serving the public? The politicians? Or making themselves our masters?
The police violence seen during the G20 protests in London, with the death of a man they assaulted, may not be new, but its exposure is making people ask questions. In an unprecedented public criticism the chair of the Independent Police Complaints Commission(IPCC), Nick Hardwick, has said the trend for officers to conceal their identity numbers is "unacceptable".
The IPCC, which initially accepted the police story that news vendor Ian Tomlinson had died of a heart attack, is now independently investigating the case, after it was revealed that Tomlinson had been attacked by a police officer and died of internal bleeding. The IPCC says it needs more resources. It has received 185 complaints, and even sifting through them to remove those which did not have first-hand evidence, only 44 were rejected. The cases being investigated include that of a young man who says he was assaulted by police at Cornhill, in the City of London, and a woman attacked by an officer who, as seen in video footage, had no number showing.
Hardwick says the trend for officers to hide numbers raised serious concerns about who was in charge of them. "Why was that happening, why did the supervisor not stop them? What does that say about what your state of mind is? You were expecting trouble?
"I think that is unacceptable. It is about being servants, not masters: the police are there as public servants."
But are they? Do they see themselves as our 'servants', or regard us with contempt? This year we have been remembering the miners' strike, and the way the Met in particular conducted itself went sent to smash miners' pickets then. If we thought this was just a North-South issue we learned different when 'Maggie's boot boys' showed themselves at home, protecting Rupert Murdoch's fortress at Wapping. News International may not pay much tax in this country, but the ordinary citizen can but admire the dedicated way our boys in blue looked after its boss's interests, like they do those of the City bankers.
This week was the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough stadium disaster, and watching Jimmy McGovern's 1996 dramatic reconstruction of events on ITV3 was a reminder of the inhumanity with which police responded to this tragedy, treating it as a 'public order' issue, and regarding the victims and their loved ones with hostility. If you have not seen this film I recommend you look out for it.
Step by step, over the years, without any hullabaloo or headlined legislation, we have seen the police apparently giving themselves powers to close tube stations (it started during the big poll tax demonstration, so people who wanted to get away from the trouble were stranded in central London); to stop people taking photographs (one group of Austrian tourists had the film taken from their cameras); and to surround and detain groups of people in the street for several hours, regardless of their discomfort (the so-called "kettling", used on May Day demonstrators a few years ago, and on the recent G20 protesters). It seems this last, leading to the situation where someone is provoked into remonstrating with officers and gets battered for protesting, may now be challenged. And about time, too.
What about our elected representatives? Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith may still have been getting over the humiliation of her husband's taste in home entertainment appearing in her controversial expense claims, and rows over Home Office leaks. Her reaction to the death of Ian Tomlinson was to call for a swift inquiry, supervised by police officers.
The IPCC's Nick Hardwick says the wider issue of police behaviour, such as removing idenity numbers, is within the Commission's remit, and he has also called for a wider public debate about what sort of policing we want. Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said his party had been given a guarantee by senior officers after clashes with climate change protesters at Kingsnorth power station in Kent, where there were also complaints of police disguising their identity, that there would be no repeat of such tactics at the G20 protests.
Some officers now appeared prepared to flout recent orders from senior commanders to display their numbers, Huhne said, with another officer photographed at the protest staged by Tamils in Parliament Square with his numbers disguised. "What we appear to have is repeated cases of police officers ignoring the direct orders of their police supervisors and this is very worrying.
"There's only one motive for a police officer disguising his identity and that's because he thinks he's going to be doing something reprehensible."
The row over the arrest of Tory MP Damien Green in connection with leaked Home Office information on immigrants took on a new aspect this week. Green, the Tories' immigration spokesman, cleared of any wrongdoing by the director of public prosecutions, has said his arrest resembled actions taken in "police states".
In an interview with the Times he also accused the police of using the opportunity to searrch his laptop, delving into matters concerning people who had nothing to do with the case. They were apparently interested in anything to do with the director of Liberty (the former National Council of Civil Liberties), Shami Chakrabarti.
"They chose key words to search all the e-mails and documents and among the more noteworthy and alarming words they were searching were Shami Chakrabarti, ", Green says. "The police wanted to look at every e-mail over the past few years between an opposition politician and a civil liberties campaigner, although Shami Chakrabarti had nothing to do with any of the leaks." He added that the search for information on the human rights campaigner was "very disturbing".
Did Jacqui Smith give the order for police action against Green, and if so, did she also ask them to get information about Shami Chakrabarti, who had nothing to do with the case but has got up the government's nose, and enraged some very reactionary forces, by her campaigning for civil liberties and concern over detention and deportation cases? If the Home Secretary says it was nothing to do with her, then who was in charge? Who was behind the police interest in information about the civil liberties campaigner?