What happens after the police kill someone?

13 Sep

Up until now I’ve been starting my writing each day with a notepad or a printout of yesterday’s work, just jotting down new ideas and deciding what I need to focus on. And now I can do all that here! So instead of just using my blog as a repository of newspaper articles and other sources, I’m also hoping to use it as a springboard for my work each day so that I can try to keep track of where I’m up to with my writing.

Today I’m working on an early section of my thesis that explains what happens after the police kill someone. It’s obvious that there has to be some sort of an investigation, but who does it?

In the UK all police conduct resulting in death or serious injury must be referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The new BC Independent Investigations Office (IIO) that started work this week (and was immediately faced with a police shooting in Prince George) fills the same role. These organisations are meant to undertake an independent investigation into the killing and produce a report about what happened. In the UK the IPCC report will then be sent to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) so that they can decide whether or not any criminal charges should be brought.

In practice criminal charges following fatal shootings are very rare. In the UK there has only been two cases where police officers have been charged with murder. One was the fatal shooting of David Ewin, a day-release prisoner shot dead in London in February 1995 while driving a stolen car. Police Constable Patrick Hodgson, the first police officer in England to be charged with murder after shooting a suspect while on duty, faced three criminal trials. The first two collapsed after juries failed to return a verdict but PC Hodgson was eventually acquitted in October 1997.

The second was the case of James Ashley, shot dead during an authorised police raid in East Sussex in January 1998. PC Christopher Sherwood faced charges of murder, alternatively manslaughter, and was acquitted in May 2001 on the direction of the trial judge after the prosecution submission of no case to answer. This means exactly what you might expect - the prosecution didn’t present any case or evidence against PC Sherwood so the jury had no option but to acquit. To me this looks more like a decision not to prosecute, except that instead of reaching that decision in the first place the CPS spent time and money going all the way to court before they decided that there was insufficient evidence to proceed.

Prosecutions for manslaughter are more common, though cases are unlikely to involve firearms. The most recent was the prosecution of PC Simon Harwood for manslaughter in relation to the death of Ian Tomlinson at the ‘G20 protests’ in London on 1 April 2009. CCTV cameras captured video of PC Harwood pushing Ian Tomlinson, who fell to the ground then collapsed dead shortly afterwards. Interestingly in the case is that the CPS originally decided not to prosecute, but reversed that decision following the Coroner’s Inquest verdict that Ian Tolinson had been unlawfully killed. PC Harwood was found not guity of manslaughter in July 2012, but information released immediately after the trial suggests that PC Harwood had previously been the subject of repeated complaints and violent behaviour. See this article from The Independent which also mentions other cases where police have been cleared of manslaughter – 20 July 2012 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/pc-simon-harwood-not-guilty-but-no-innocent-7960149.html

Although PC Harwood may be no innocent, there is a HUGE difference between pushing someone and shooting them. Even if we believe that PC Harwood had no reason to push Ian Tomlinson, he certainly didn’t intend to kill him. But a police officer who fatally shoots someone intends to use fatal force – and an intention to use fatal force is the same as an intention to kill. The police themselves refer to conventional firearms as lethal weapons and distinguish these from ‘less-lethal’ weapons (such as Tasers). Police in the UK are trained to shoot at the largest part of the body they can see. They don’t fire warning shots or aim at an individual’s legs (like they do in Sweden). So when a police officer fires his weapon the only conclusion that can be reached is that he does so with an intention to kill the person he is aiming at. There is no room for manslaughter here – an intentional killing is murder unless the police officer can raise a legal defence, such as self-defence or defence of others.

This is why prosecutions for murder are so rare - the CPS can only decide to prosecute if there is a realistic prospect of conviction. And when a police officer claims that he acted to defend himself, or another person, or the public the default position seems to be that we accept his story. The paradox here is that because these cases rarely go to court, the police officer’s claim that he acted in self-defence is never tested. The CPS seem fairly satisfied that in most cases the police act in self-defence. But is this really true? Or do we just want to believe that police officers never act out of line? Considering the video that has been released of the Azelle Rodney shooting (see yesterday’s post) and the background information that has emerged following the verdict in the Ian Tomlinson case, maybe these claims of self-defence need closer scrutiny?

Should they face charges of murder or not?

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