Why do the police need masks?

Sunday Herald | April 13, 2009
By Ian Bell

IT'S A balaclava, apparently. No doubt it will be described as essential protective dress. But looking at the video film and photographs of the "territorial support group officer" who has just taken his baton to Ian Tomlinson minutes before the newspaper vendor's death, I'm wondering: why does a British policeman in pursuance of his duties feel the need to be masked?

There's another mystery. In one still, Tomlinson is sitting on the ground before the police line, being aided by a stranger. There are eight helmeted officers and two dog handlers in shot. Of these, only three have balaclavas. Two wear the garment normally, covering the chin. The third, having stepped aside after his attack on the passer-by, has the thing high on his face, leaving only the eyes showing. And his shoulder tabs, the tabs bearing his police number, have gone.

That's an old one. It is, of course, against all the rules. The number is there for a reason, in theory to the benefit of police and public alike should disputes arise. Traditionally, we don't much care for masked and anonymous coppers in a country said to cherish the right to protest. After all, the forces of law and order, repositories of public trust, have nothing to hide.

Last weekend, disparaging some of the G20 demonstrators, I remarked that the Met and its helpers in the City of London Police had seemed just a little too eager for trouble. They were - they said so - "up for it". The subsequent flood of complaints over policing methods was therefore not too much of a surprise. The handful of wee warriors - class, eco, whatever - who can confuse a smashed window with a smashed system were the perfect foil, Judy to Punch, for the Met's media operation. But I missed one aspect of the ritual.

Someone has to give the orders. Someone has to set the tone, plan the strategy, and lead the officers on the ground to an understanding of what is, and is not, acceptable. "Kettling", the penning of a crowd into a confined area for hours on end as though to provoke anger, does not happen spontaneously. The use of batons and shields does not happen on a whim. The planting of plain-clothes officers and fake photographers is no freelance initiative. And levels of violence - "zero tolerance", if you like - arise from operational decisions.

The alternative is to believe that our police are actually out of control. Would Sir Paul Stephenson, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, care to speak to that idea? I doubt it. Instead, we can expect to see the officer filmed striking Mr Tomlinson - other beatings of the victim that day have been alleged - become the Met's one bad apple. If found guilty of an offence, he will have "overstepped the bounds", succumbed to pressure, lost his head. He will not be identified, and will not identify himself, as part of a pre-meditated operation. Who was jailed for the wanton killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, after all?

Let's give the benefit of every doubt. It must be very difficult to police a large demonstration in which a lot of people are angry, some hate your guts, and a few are spoiling for a fight. It must be scary. Should things go wrong, you, or the public you are supposed to be protecting, could be in danger. Things are liable to be chaotic. Orders will not always be clear. No plan is ever perfect, in any case. Something always goes wrong. And, yes, people do lose their heads when adrenalin, nerves, fear and fatigue go to work.

But in the immediate aftermath of the G20, before it became clear that Tomlinson's death was something more than a small but simple tragedy, the brass at the Met were patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Their now habitual use of methods once unthinkable in this country had worked like a charm. Minimal damage to property; lots of arrests (if precious few charges); no security breaches; and nothing but the usual whining from the usual quarters: something to be proud of.

As for that unfortunate death, a quick post-mortem managed to detect a heart attack but no evidence whatever of bruising on the body of a man who had been thumped with a baton and thrown heavily to the ground on more than one occasion. Meanwhile, the "Independent" Police Complaints Commission found no need for a speedy inquiry - initially, the City of London Police were expected to investigate the City of London Police. Even now that the IPCC is on board, will any real questions be asked?

Questions such as: is this really how order is to be kept on London's streets? Questions such as: why dare to talk about the "right to peaceful protest" when peaceful environmental protesters have been clubbed? Above all, this question: can police commanders go on deploring violence when their strategies incite violence and their officers are often the worst culprits?

The brass can't dodge these issues. Is the Met a disciplined force or not? If it is, who gave the orders during the G20? If it is not, who resigns? When the riot squad begin to disguise themselves - just like the "anarchists"; lovely irony - they enjoy at least the tacit understanding of their superiors. Even that can only be excused if you fall back on the "isolated incident" explanation for violence, and that would be a lie. These are modern policing methods, the rule and not the exception.

The masking of the officer who hit Tomlinson has one simple explanation, of course. Call it the democratisation of surveillance. These days video cameras are palm-sized; every other phone can take a picture. They can even take snaps of police officers engaged in apparent crimes. So while the forces of law and order have few qualms over our privacy, and see nothing intrusive about those Google Street View vans now peering at homes across Britain, they guard their own identities when they think they must. Why? Surely "if you've done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear"? Tell that to the cop with no number.

While this controversy was unfolding, of course, another of the Met's finest was learning the value of a picture. Bob Quick, the Met's "anti-terror chief", had to quit last week after compromising an anti-terrorism operation. Apparently it is not a good idea to flash secret operational documents in front of press cameras, just as it is not a good idea to hit an apparently harmless man in front of witnesses with digital equipment. Hence perhaps the desire of the police, thwarted thus far, to make it illegal for the rest of us to film or photograph them.

Wouldn't it be simpler just to observe the first rule of home movies: don't do anything you might regret? For the Met, at least, it's probably too late. A terrorist threat, a real one, has caused the force, its multitude of decent cops included, to embrace the logic of the security state. That was the point of the response to the G20 protests: every member of the public present was regarded as suspect, just in case. No chances were taken, no exceptions made, and precious little restraint was applied to those wielding the batons.

Instead, there was encouragement. Watch the footage of the attack on Tomlinson. The baton blow looked unprovoked, spontaneous as a street brawl. The officer's body language said that this - lashing out, under no apparent threat, offered no resistance - was why he was there. And not a single one of his colleagues said a word, put out a restraining hand, or moved to help his victim. They knew the score.

The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police enjoys what all governments like to call operational independence. It is the perfect political formula. Sir Paul Stephenson reports to a committee chaired by London's mayor, Boris Johnson, and answers ultimately to the home secretary, Jacqui Smith. But the daily decisions are his alone. If he succeeds, the politicians take credit. If he fails, he takes the blame.

Stephenson issues his orders, nevertheless, within the prevailing political climate. That demands intolerance, suspicion, unaccountability, the unthinking use of force - and the corruption, finally, of any idea of democratic policing. No wonder the foot soldiers hide their faces.