The Cass report of the investigation into the death of Blair Peach at an anti-fascist demonstration in Southall in 1979 has been made public, 30 years after his death.
The report concluded that Blair Peach was killed by a police officer from the Special Patrol Group (SPG). The person responsible was one of six officers travelling in an SPG carrier U11. According to the report, one officer in particular was “indicated” as being responsible, but no officer was ever charged with the death. Three further officers were strongly recommended for prosecution for perverting the course of justice on the basis of a “deliberate attempt to conceal the presence of the carrier at the scene at that time”.
The report makes clear that fellow officers tried to protect their colleagues and none were willing to come forward to admit the use of unnecessary force or to justify their actions. (‘Blair Peach killed by police at 1979 protest, Met report finds’, The Guardian 27 April 2010)
Despite an investigation that culminated in more than 3,000 pages of documents, including witness statements and forensic reports, no prosecutions were ever brought against any of the officers who were suspected of involvement. As a result, the officers were spared the prospect of having to account for their actions and the public was denied the opportunity, through a jury, to hear the evidence and decide for themselves who was responsible.
It is incidents like these which lay bare the role of the police in our society, standing over and above the people, and protecting the interests of the exploiting class in times of protest and rebellion.
Blair Peach’s family’s battle of 30 years for the truth is a sad illustration of this fact.
Special Patrol Group
One important clue to the police’s role is found in the very existence of the Special Patrol Group (SPG) – set up in 1965 as a specialist division within the Metropolitan police with responsibility for “public disorder, serious crime and terrorism”. (See en.wikipedia.org)
Officers were trained as a fighting unit, operating independently from other units and on the lookout for the ‘enemy within’. The ideological training was thorough indeed, for it brought about the situation where SPG officers, sent to police a demonstration against the National Front in the heart of the Asian community of Southall in 1979, viewed those who took to the streets to protest against fascism and racism, the forces which threatened to divide that and other communities in England, as enemies of the state and targeted them with lethal force.
When Inspector Cass raided lockers at the SPG headquarters as part of his investigation into Blair Peach’s death, he “uncovered a stash of unauthorised weapons, including illegal truncheons, knives, two crowbars, a whip, a 3ft wooden stave and a lead-weighted leather stick. One officer was caught trying to hide a metal cosh, although it was not the weapon that killed Peach. Another officer was found with a collection of Nazi regalia.” (The Guardian, op cit)
It just goes to show the kind of individual who was sought after and able to flourish within the SPG.
A further clue is in the protection that is afforded to officers who exceed their powers. The investigation into Blair Peach’s death was conducted internally by the Metropolitan police, allowing the force to determine the course of the investigation, control the evidence and interpret the findings.
Raju Bhatt, the solicitor for Celia Stubbs (Blair Peach’s partner), commented on the Cass report as follows “what I read in this report is a senior investigating officer desperately trying to explain away the death, but despite himself, he is driven by the weight of the evidence to conclude that the death was caused by one of his officers”. (Ibid)
Despite the fact that the internal investigation narrowed down the likely perpetrators to only six officers, and that one in particular was in the frame, no officer was ever charged with Blair’s murder. The investigatory process meant that the Metropolitan police, supported by parliament, remained above the law.
Meanwhile, the internal investigation set the scene in respect of the various avenues of potential police accountability that followed. Both the decision (of the Crown Prosecution Service) to refuse criminal charges and the decision (of the Police Complaints Board ) as to disciplinary measures, were based on the Cass report.
The report also tainted the inquest into Blair Peach’s death, which followed in 1980. By this time, there was mass international support for his family and condemnation of the police, who even then were widely believed to be responsible for his death.
Of the inquest, the Guardian reported last year that the coroner “controversially suppressed the Cass report. The coroner relied heavily on Cass’ findings to call and cross examine police officers, but refused to allow Peach’s family lawyers access to the details … The coroner was criticised for inappropriately guiding the jury, discouraging them from being critical of the police. They returned a verdict of misadventure.
“For [partner of Blair] Stubbs the outcome of the inquest was the ultimate betrayal. ‘Blair’s inquest amounted to a posthumous sentence of death upon a man who was on his way home from a demonstration against the National Front and found himself in a trap’. She said ‘Police chose to go berserk’.” (‘Partner of man killed by Met officers calls for investigation to be made public’, The Guardian, 13 June 2009)
If these two measures were not sufficient, the report was then kept secret for 30 years until its recent release. There is no prospect of criminal charges being brought now.
30 years on: the Territorial Support Group (TSG)
On the publication of the Cass report, current Metropolitan Police Commissioner Stephenson has offered his assurances to the public, saying that the Met is now a “completely different” force, but facts clearly demonstrate that this is not the case.
Thirty years on, the Metropolitan police’s public order squad, now known as the TSG, has again been under intense public scrutiny, following the broadcasting of violent policing of protests outside the G20 summit in London last year and the murder of Ian Tomlinson, who died following a violent assault by a TSG officer when walking home past protestors.
Speaking on Radio 4 on the day the Cass report was released, Raju Bhatt said “the policing of political protest in this country to this day gives a cause for concern. It avoids recognising the right to protest, the right to peaceful assembly. It analyses any protest as by its nature unlawful and it allows an impunity for police officers and investigators alike when faced with police officers who have crossed that line as they did in the case of Blair Peach.” (BBC Today, 27 April 2010)
He added that the Territorial Support Group (TSG), whose officers are implicated in the death of Ian Tomlinson, and the assault of numerous G20 protesters, are the “direct descendents of the SPG”.
In support of his argument that the Met had changed, Commissioner Stephenson relied upon the “rigorous enquiries”, following Tomlinson’s death. But what has been the outcome of all those enquires?
According to The Guardian, “in the four years leading up to the [G20] protests, for example, the TSG … received more than 5,000 complaints, mostly for ‘oppressive behaviour’ Of those, only nine were substantiated after an investigation by the Met’s internal complaints unit.” (‘Ian Tomlinson family waits for answers one year on from G20 protests’, 26 March 2010)
Police immunity continues
Thirty years on and the overwhelming majority of complaints against police officers are still investigated internally by the police force subject to the complaint. This situation allows the police total control over the investigation, including who is interviewed and which leads are pursued. The investigating officer makes a judgement call about the credibility of witnesses and the likely outcome of a prosecution in light of any discrepancies in witness accounts. This system presents a fairly failsafe method of keeping criminal police officers out of the criminal courts.
The inquest system, meanwhile, remains extremely under-resourced, poorly funded and narrow in its focus.
On the rare occasions when police officers do face criminal charges, the chances of securing a conviction are slim. The public galleries are usually packed with a supporters club of fellow officers and their families, with officers often being given time off other duties to support a fellow officer on trial. The impact of a criminal conviction on the officer’s career is stressed heavily to any judge or jury.
Any civilian witness is undoubtedly at a great disadvantage in the witness box compared with a police officer, who is trained and experienced in giving evidence in court. Only the most robust and self-confident civilian witnesses giving evidence against the police are able to withstand the intense grilling and character assassination that they face under cross examination by police lawyers.
One of the few TSG officers to stand trial in the aftermath of the investigations into numerous complaints surrounding the policing of the G20 summit in 2009 was Sergeant Delroy Smellie. He was acquitted of assault after he slapped a woman across the face and hit her legs with his truncheon at a memorial protest the day after Tomlinson’s death. The judge hearing the case in the absence of the victim, who declined to give evidence, accepted that the police officer acted in self-defence after Smellie argued that he had felt threatened and that he believed that the young woman held a weapon (a juice carton) and was about to attack him and other officers.
Notwithstanding this verdict, it seems very difficult to see how any rational person viewing the video footage of the incident, which is widely available on the internet, could possibly conclude that Smellie’s body language and actions are those of a frightened or threatened man. As George Monbiot wrote:
“But when he hit her on the legs, she wasn’t coming from anywhere. She was standing still and pointing. And the idea that this huge, well-armed man could have felt, as he claimed, threatened by that tiny woman seems laughable to me. It certainly isn’t the impression the footage creates. He very calmly, almost casually, draws his baton and knocks her down, then immediately switches his attention to someone else.” (‘Police officers must face trial by jury’, guardian.co.uk, 1 April 2010)
Support the family of Ian Tomlinson
30 years on and it is once again a grieving family which is drawn unwillingly into a confrontation with a state determined to protect its ‘protectors’. Despite evidence that clearly shows a police officer making the assault that resulted in Ian Tomlinson’s death, his family have little confidence that the circumstances will be investigated impartially, or that the officers responsible will be held accountable.
In echoes of the Blair Peach murder, information released by the police concerning Tomlinson has been inaccurate or misleading. Many attempts have been made to impugn Tomlinson’s character and draw attention away from the conduct of the police.
In the early days of the investigation, for example, a senior investigator “refused to rule out” the possibility that the person who struck Mr Tomlinson may have been a protester dressed up as a police officer. One year on from his death, the family are still waiting for a decision from the Crown Prosecution Service as to whether any officer will face charges for his killing.
Are the police, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and the CPS once again in the grips of Cass’s desperate struggle to avoid placing responsibility where it belongs, on the shoulders of the TSG? The family of Ian Tomlinson need our support as they seek the truth about their loved one’s death and as they bear the weight of our class’s burden in exposing the lies and culture of impunity within the police.
Policing under capitalism
In order to maintain ‘order’, the state needs a population at once fearful and at the same time at least passively supportive of the institution of the police. In cases like that of Blair Peach and Ian Tomlinson, not to mention the thousands of complaints made each year about police brutality and abuse of power, the refusal to recognise and acknowledge this serious wrongdoing, because of what that might do to public support for the police and the ability of the state to keep control in the same way, means that violent and dangerous police officers remain on our streets. The culture of the SPG lives on in the TSG and continues to define the way public protest is policed.
The bourgeois state must not be allowed to intimidate us out of taking our demands and our voice to the streets, until the tide of those demands is strong enough to sweep aside the old state institutions whereby a wholly new police force may be established, by and for the working class, and which will truly act, this time, in the service of the people.