There has been a long history of bad behaviour by the police. Roughly speaking, it has been of three types: (1) straight criminal behaviour (armed robbery squads turning a blind eye in exchange for a percentage of the take, vice squads turning a blind eye in return for favours, beating up suspects etc); (2) perjury (typically “improving” the evidence against people the police believe to be guilty); (3) killing innocent (and not so innocent) people.
On the whole, the police have accepted that (1) is a serious evil which has to be rooted out, although it has proved tough to eliminate. I do not want to discuss it any further here.
It is hard to get the facts on (2). There is no doubt that it is a difficult and contentious issue. Both police and criminals tend to feel aggrieved. There is no doubt that for much of my lifetime, large numbers of policemen, perhaps a majority, regarded it as acceptable, even normal behaviour, to “improve” their evidence. Think back to the introduction of the ESDA test which for the first time provided a forensic way of detecting later alterations in police notebooks. There was a rash of cases revealing police “improvements” until the police generally became aware of the technique.
Equally, there is no doubt that magistrates and judges were much too disposed to believe police evidence for most of my lifetime. The most famous case was the Birmingham Six when Lord Denning was not prepared to believe that large numbers of police had perjured themselves.
On the other hand, it is deeply frustrating for the police to see criminals escaping justice repeatedly on “technical” grounds. or by successfully intimidating witnesses, or fooling gullible juries with absurd defences.
One feature of this type of case is that there is typically a long struggle to get an innocent man freed, but almost never a prosecution for perjury. The police “get away with it”. Similarly, with (3), there is sometimes an enquiry saying that the death was most unfortunate, often damages paid, but no one ever seems to be jailed for manslaughter.
Partly, this is inevitable. Police too have rights. The ordinary standards of proof – “beyond reasonable doubt” – apply to them as much as to anyone else. Also, in (3), the deaths often seem to arise from “system failures”, where it is hard to see that any one person behaved in a criminal way.
Take, for example, the Harry Stanley case. On 22 September 1999, Harry Stanley left the Alexandra pub in Hackney carrying a wooden chair leg in a plastic bag. Someone phoned the police and said that an “Irishman with a gun wrapped in a bag” had left the pub. Two Met firearms officers sent to the scene challenged him from behind. He started to turn around to face them, and as he did so they shot him dead.
There were two inquests, High Court proceedings and an enquiry by the Surrey Police. The two officers were arrested in June 2005, but the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to prosecute in October 2005. Finally, there was a report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, published in February 2006 (pdf). This report cleared the two police officers, although it did appear that they had improved their defence by somewhat misleading notebook entries.
Clearly, you can take the view that the officers over-reacted or exercised poor judgment, but it is hard to disagree with the CPS that “the prosecution evidence is insufficient to rebut the officers’ assertion that they were acting in self-defence”.
In my view, the real problem was that the potential unreliability of the phoned-in report was not adequately communicated to the two firearms officers. I do not remember if anyone ever discovered who made the phone call or why, but clearly it could have been made out of malice, hoping the police would shoot Harry Stanley, or by some idiot who had drunk too much, or by someone with mental problems, or by a level-headed and well-meaning member of the public who had clearly seen a sawn-off shotgun and recognized the man carrying it as a notorious armed robber. There was just no way of knowing at the time the firearms officers were dispatched to the scene. So they needed a much clearer briefing. Or they needed much clearer standing orders – a clear explanation in the course of their training that they would often get sent to places on the basis of totally unreliable information.
Unfortunately, that lesson does not seem to have been learnt from Harry Stanley’s death.