The trial of PC Simon Harwood, accused of the killing of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson, began this week some three years after his death at a G20 protest. Harwood denies the manslaughter charge.
The prosecution claimed that Harwood attacked Tomlinson during a “rush of blood too the head” in a “gratuitous act of aggression”.
The jury were told that the police officer had, minutes before, witnessed a fellow officer being punched then attempted to arrest a protester who had been spraying graffiti on a police van only to be subject to sustained jeering as the protester slipped off his coat and ran away. Another protester then blew a vuvuzela in his face.
Video evidence showed Harwood strike Tomlinson (who was on his way home from work with his hands in his pockets and head down) from behind on the thigh with his baton and then sent him sprawling to the ground with a powerful shove. Tomlinson collapsed less than 100 meters from the scene and later died of internal injuries.
The court heard how PC Harwood, whose duties that day were only meant to include driving other officers, had written a statement that night saying “I do not remember how many persons I struck, but done so in order to prevent any further RIOTING and preserve my safety”. The video shows very clearly that Tomlinson is calm, walking away from the officer with his head down and his hands firmly in his pockets. A less threatening person it is difficult to imagine.
Mark Dennis QC said “To strike out as he did, simply because Tomlinson may not have been moving as quickly as the defendant might have wanted, was a wholly disproportionate response by the defendant to the circumstances that then existed.
“There had been no need to use any force upon Tomlinson, let alone a forceful baton strike followed by a powerful push to the back that sent him flying. The display of force has all the hallmarks of a gratuitous act of aggression by a lone officer whose blood was up, having lost the self-control to be expected of a police officer in such circumstances and who was going to stand no truck from anyone who appeared to him to be a protester and to be getting in his way.”
He continued “Having struck Tomlinson and sent him flying to the ground, the defendant simply turned away and ignored him.”
Police claims at the time
At the time of Tomlinson’s death the police made a number of claims that turned out not to be true.
They claimed that Tomlinson had died without “contact” with the police, yet video evidence emerged showing not only Harwood’s attack from behind but also an earlier incident where Tomlinson was thrown against a wall as he tried to find a way through an alley that was blocked off by police.
The police claimed he died of natural causes unconnected with the attack despite the clear legal precedents that a fatal heart attack that occurs directly after an assault is consistently classed as unlawful killing. The first autopsy report which ruled that the death had nothing to do with the physical assaults was found to be unsafe and was re-examined raising concerns that the initial autopsy had been written to help the police rather than examine the cause of death dispassionately. The second autopsy showed that Tomlinson had sustained a serious injury to his liver.
The police also claimed that they came under attack from protesters with bricks and bottles as they attempted to help Tomlinson, but video footage later showed this was not the case and that police had actually obstructed the ambulance as it attempted to assist and only allowed it through after protesters insisted that they allow the vehicle through their lines.
All these claims were trumpeted by much of the press when made, and corrections were either completely absent or whispered.
In the wake of Tomlinson’s death PC Harwood delayed handing himself in, despite the emergence of the video footage. More seriously not a single police office at the scene assisted with the murder investigation at the time even though they are likely to have had information on which officer was shown on camera pushing Tomlinson from behind.
American businessman Christopher La Jaunie, who filmed the footage that was first to emerge of theincident, said in a statement that ”Mr Tomlinson was not posing any threat to the officers prior to this, or aggravating them… I had the impression that the officer was making an example of him.”
The statement continued “I couldn’t understand why he was getting so close to the police line. I thought they might see this as some kind of a threat. I didn’t see him as a protester, I had the impression that he was just intoxicated and a bit out of sorts, just trying to get home.”
Other witnesses described how the other officers stood around “nonchalantly” looking at Tomlinson on the ground. One protester Joshua Fenech, told the court ”They weren’t interested really. They were just having a chat amongst themselves, they didn’t offer any assistance even though he was on the floor in obvious distress.”
Tomlinson was helped to his feet by protesters and members of the public.
Points of law
Harwood accepts that he was the officer shown in the video striking and then pushing Tommlinson but denies manslaughter. The court will need to decide whether his use of force was lawful and proportionate and whether it was Harwood’s actions that led to Tomlinson’s death. The case continues.