The death of PC David Philips hit (apparently) by a stolen pickup truck being pursued following a suspected robbery is awful for his family, friends and colleagues and our hearts go out to them.
But the incident looks more like reckless endangerment than deliberate murder; a swerving attempt to avoid the stinger device PC Philips and a colleague (who managed to jump out of the way) were deploying to burst the car’s tyres – in itself a dangerous measure that could have caused the deaths of anyone in the vehicle.
That at least will be the basis of any defence 18-year-old Clayton Williams will put up. The Wallasey, Merseyside teenager has already publicly confessed, and profoundly apologised to the family, in an extraordinary statement issued through his solicitor, after he was remanded in custody last week, in which he said he had no intention of running down PC Philips and was not aware that he had.
In fact, a number of aspects of this case are somewhat unsettling.
It is common practice, and allowed, for police to issue photographs or photofit pictures, and to name suspects they are looking for in connection with major crimes, before an arrest is made and a charge brought. But at that juncture, reporting restrictions demand that only the accused’s name, age and address may continue to be published.
I cannot remember a single case in which the police have carried out an arrest, the suspect has been charged, appeared in court to confirm their identity and been remanded for a further hearing, and the police have then released to the press, for publication, a photograph of the accused.
Whatever the crime, even a police killing, such an action is totally contrary to the 800-year old principle of British justice, that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. In this case, it looks like the defence has been railroaded into issuing a public admission of guilt even before the accused has been given the opportunity to enter a plea in court: trial by media.
It is not a happy precedent.
That the photograph should be an image taken from social media of the teenager drunk and behaving disgracefully at a party, leering spottily into the lens and raising two fingers, while the faces of people in the background have been pixellated, is clearly highly prejudicial. What motive could the police, if indeed it was they who obtained the photo, possibly have in releasing it to the media, other than to influence a potential future jury of sober and upright adult citizens?
The release of the image provoked a predictable crawling-out from under stones of the rabid tendency among the Commentariat, most of whom called for the youth to be violently tortured and hung as an example to others. Many complained of their disappointment that Clayton Williams, despite his name, had turned out not to be a black man.
The Daily Mail controversialist, Katie Hopkins for once took the side of proportionality and criticised sensationalist media coverage of the family’s outspoken grief as ‘scripted… X-factor videotape… the Instagram nation.’ She cruelly went on to imagine Mrs Williams viewing the TV coverage of her performance with satisfaction. Ms Hopkins is not a very nice person, but in this instance she expressed the unease some may have felt at the way the death of PC Philips was being turned to advantage, at a time of cuts to the police budget.
Again, this seems to have been the police ensuring maximum public opprobrium against the accused, through an orchestrated press conference designed to heighten sympathy for the victim’s fully extended family. Tearful family appeals to the killer to come forward have become commonplace, but in this instance the police already had a suspect in custody, who had apparently confessed – and went on to arrest a number of other, unnamed persons – presumably the boy’s family and friends – as accessories after the fact.
This trawling of connections to suspects is also disturbing, reminiscent as it is of the ancient practice of ‘sippenhaft’ – targeting the wider families of supposedly disloyal resisters to ensure compliance. Commit a crime nowadays and your spouse, your mum, or seemingly anyone on your contacts list who has failed to hand you over to the authorities in good time is likely to end up being hauled in and gaoled on charges of ‘conspiracy to pervert the course of justice’.
The vengeful statements of senior officers should be seen in context of a force that very much protects its own. The Chief Constable’s impassioned remark that ‘he didn’t stand a chance’ made for a good headline, but the inevitable inquiry might, in the cold light of day, possibly find that PC Philips was ordered into the path of the escaping vehicle by a superior; reducing his ‘chances’ still further.
It is unfortunately a truth that many such accidents happen when the police take off in hot pursuit of a suspect: in this case, the red Mitsubishi pickup stolen earlier was spotted lurking in the area an hour after police were called to the robbery, and a high-speed chase ensued. Was PC Philips ordered to put himself in harm’s way? And if so, could the extraordinary media-storm not have been generated in part to deflect attention away from a possibly fatal operational error?
It all begs the question: should we go on risking TV-cop-show-style, high-speed car chases in built-up areas, when we have spotter technology and surveillance cameras and drones, the ability to track vehicles remotely – and even, if not yet then not far off, the technology to send a jamming signal that can switch-off a car’s computerised engine management system?
And what if the victim had not been a policeman, but some other father-of-two making his way home after a night-shift, hit perhaps by a police car? Would the force have treated the case with the same sensationalised prominence, or perhaps relied instead on another anodyne and long-drawn-out IPCC investigation to draw a veil?
In context, with forty million vehicles on the UK’s cluttered roads, around 400 pedestrians are hit and killed by vehicles each year (some by police drivers); another 1,400 die in crashes. That’s quite a lot of ‘brilliant dads’ who don’t come home in the normal course of events. That this figure is one third what it was 40 years ago is testament in part to the vigour with which police enforce the traffic regulations.
And it is salutary to remember that one hundred and forty-two people died in workplace accidents in 2014.
Statistically, police work is actually quite safe when compared with some other occupations; possibly due to assiduous training. The last British policeman killed in the line of duty was back in 2013, also struck by a getaway car. 2012 was an exceptional year, as a result of two WPCs in Manchester being lured into an ambush and shot to death by a local ‘face’ – a known thug who had decided to hand himself in over a previous murder and thought it would be a nice idea to take a couple of coppers down with him. Another PC was shot confronting an armed man while off-duty, and a fourth died of a heart attack while pursuing a suspect.
But there are 128 thousand people employed in the police force. It is the relative rarity of such incidents that makes them stand out.
Self-serving and pious statements by politicians about the extraordinary dangers of police work and lurid phrasemaking about ‘putting their lives on the line every night’ ignore the facts – with, on average, 30-plus deaths a year in police custody, it’s quite a lot more dangerous in Britain to be a criminal, or suspected of being one. Most people would say, that’s how it should be.
Of course, in America it’s more like a small war. Let’s not go there.
After adding to the above yesterday with what I hoped was a more direct rationalisation of my semi-private concern at the management of the publicity surrounding this tragic case, as it seemed to set an uncomfortable legal precedent, there is news of a PC in a ‘serious’ condition, having been knifed in the stomach when called to an incident in North London. A 16-year-old boy is being questioned.
Of course, policing is often dangerous work. I merely commented that statistically, the fatality rate among police in this country is thankfully very low. Nor do I believe that violent young punks without any sense of consequence or responsibility for their actions are a new phenomenon indicative of the breakdown of the social order: they have always existed.
Hanging and flogging them isn’t going to make any difference, we used to do that but they are ever with us. It is hardly perverted liberalism to suggest that there are reasons for their antisocial behaviour that ought to be addressed, while at the same time upholding the rule of law.
I do not take pleasure in the death of any individual; nor was I writing about any individual, excepting that this was a case that illustrated the way in which a precedent was being extended and nobody appeared to have noticed.
I have had a night to think about an abusive Comment received in relation to the original article. It is the first such Comment my blog has attracted in almost four years; possibly a sign of failure. The author, ‘Chris’, is a person obviously with little education, but direct and to the point. What I write may indeed be ‘fucking bollocks’, while it is indeed regrettable that I have never had the opportunity to die for my country, of whose overly sentimental laws and customs ‘Chris’ disapproves.
As a citizen (whose ancestors migrated here from northern Europe thirteen centuries ago) I still insist on the right to have a view, to express an opinion!
My blog is a personal ‘work in progress’ and subject to continual interventions by an editor I keep in my head. I have made one or two minor changes this morning. Something however that has also popped out of my head overnight is a worry that the country is becoming polarised between moral relativists and moral absolutists: people disposed to thinking-through complicated problems, as against people who merely react, sometimes with inarticulate violence, from pre-prepared positions.
I can see little difference between the ‘Chris’s and their fundamentalist counterparts in other cultures around the world, ISIS, the Moral Majority, who are once again in the ascendant. People who see everything in terms of black and white, who express violent thoughts against anyone they consider The Other – anyone that is, who looks or behaves or thinks differently from themselves. People with a visceral hatred of open discussion.
I suppose the difference is, for now, that one group is prepared to rampage through cities, indiscriminately shooting and bombing in the name of a religious ideal; while the others conduct their private wars by hurling inarticulate invective at people they fundamentally disagree with, in a public forum that guarantees their anonymity (for now). I am equally guilty of that, at times.
I suppose there has always been tension between the two camps, the ‘class war’ – but the internet has enabled a permissive discourse to evolve that is ratcheting up the social tension level, at a time of difficult global challenges to the postwar social consensus for which no-one appears to have any answers, other than more violence.
It’s not a good sign.