19th July 2012

PC Simon Harwood was today found not guilty of the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson

Deborah Coles, co-director of INQUEST said:

“This verdict is a damning reflection of the systemic problems inherent in the current investigation system where deaths following police use of force are not treated as potential crimes. This failure has profound consequences on the proper functioning of the justice system in relation to such deaths.

“It is vital that the rule of law is upheld and applies equally to all, including police officers, and that they do not believe that they can act with impunity.

“For too long there has been a pattern of cases where inquest juries have found overwhelming evidence of unlawful and excessive use of force or gross neglect and yet no police officer either at an individual or senior management level has been held responsible.”


Notes and background:

  1. INQUEST’s briefing on the death of Ian Tomlinson is available here
  2. Unlawful killing verdicts and prosecutions:

INQUEST’s monitoring has shown how the state uses the inquest rather than criminal prosecution and trial for the public examination of deaths in custody. It is extremely rare for there to be a prosecution after a death in custody even where there has been an inquest verdict of unlawful killing.  Thanks to video footage of Ian Tomlinson being struck down people were able to witness this abuse of power first hand and as a result of the family’s legal representation from the outset the evidence gathered to force the CPS to act.

No police officer has ever been convicted of manslaughter in modern history.  There have been attempts to prosecute police in 6 cases since 1990, none of which have been successful.  Since 1990 unlawful killing verdicts have been returned in nine deaths in police custody/following police contact cases. The verdict of unlawful killing can only be returned on the criminal standard of proof where a jury is sure beyond reasonable doubt that the death was the result of gross negligence manslaughter or murder.

For full data see our section of our website on unlawful killing verdicts and prosecutions

There is a lack of proper data concerning police prosecutions (in particular for lesser offences).  According to the IPCC’s Deaths in Custody study published in 2010, in the 10 years leading up to 2010 just 1 civilian member of police staff was found guilty of misconduct and given a six month sentence. There were no other successful prosecutions during this period.

There have been nearly 1500 deaths in police custody or following police contact since 1990, according to INQUEST casework and monitoring.

  1. Institutional and systemic issues

INQUEST’s monitoring has revealed an institutional unwillingness to approach these deaths as if a crime has been committed which affects the whole process from the investigation carried out by the police (who may not even define the place of death as a crime scene) through to the considerations by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). This approach also contributes to a culture of impunity within the police force, borne out by inquests into deaths in police custody time and again.

This sends a clear message to police officers and other detaining agents that when deaths occur as a result of their acts or omissions they will not be called to account.  Through this process the perception is created that state agents are above the law. This is one of the most contentious issues in relation to the approach of the criminal justice system to all deaths in custody.

INQUEST has highlighted how deaths in police custody or following police contact  are not routinely treated as a criminal investigation as if a crime may have been committed  There is therefore no crime scene, no questioning of protagonists under caution or witnesses and no forensic investigation.  Without this evidence it severely limits the power to prosecute.

The lack of regulatory oversight in the working relationship between coroners, the police and pathologists resulted in systemic problems with the investigation of this death from the very beginning and with its subsequent consideration by the CPS.

  1. Public and community relations

Deaths involving the use of force by police officers have been by their very nature the most controversial and their impact on police and community relations in particular has been profound resulting in a lack of confidence and mistrust of the police complaints system and considerable public anger about the use of unlawful or excessive force.

  1. INQUEST has been working with the family of Ian Tomlinson since his death through the subsequent inquest and trial.