I don’t generally comment on stories about crime, however last October for a specific reason I wrote about a case in Liverpool in which a policeman, PC David Philips, was knocked down and killed by a young tearaway, 19-year-old Clayton Williams, driving a stolen car.
Police vehicles were in hot pursuit after an earlier break-in had been reported at a local estate agent’s office. PC Philips and a colleague were on foot and ordered to deploy a ‘Stinger’, a device designed to stop vehicles by puncturing their tyres.
My reason for commenting was that, as a former news editor, who was once subject to all sorts of reporting restrictions, laws and rules of arrest and trial procedure, I found several aspects of the case troubling.
For instance, the highly emotive language used by the police, who claimed immediately following the incident that Williams had deliberately driven the vehicle at PC Philips, which he denied; the release for publication of an unflattering social media photograph of an obviously drunk and leering Williams after he had already been charged; a carefully constructed tearful TV press conference involving PC Philips’ grieving widow, children and extended family, again after charge; the continual stressing of PC Philips’ paternity, his attractive blonde widow and the immediate assumption in the press before the outcome of the trial, of Williams’ guilt.
The Liverpool Echo, for instance, reported (even before a trial): ‘The married dad-of-two was mown down by the stolen red Mitsubishi pick-up he was trying to stop.’ How were potential jurors supposed to ignore all this prejudicial reporting?
The memorable sentence: ‘He didn’t stand a chance’, was used of PC Philips by the Chief Constable in the immediate aftermath of the incident, and no doubt by coincidence came up again in court, in the mouth of the prosecutor. The trial being held in fiercely partisan Liverpool would also have contributed to what appeared to me to be a deliberate effort by the police to ensure that it was Williams, too, who ‘didn’t stand a chance’, by effectively prejudicing the outcome of his trial through a concerted PR campaign.
Williams was charged with murder, however that proved a red line too far even for the Liverpool jury. Finding lack of intent, he was convicted of manslaughter, but was handed a murder sentence anyway: 20 years, the more usual manslaughter sentence involving a vehicle being two to five and with a long driving ban. (The question arises then, as to how good the defence team could have been?)
That is not, any of it, to excuse the crime; only the exceptionalism with which the case was handled. I say these things, only because we still have a criminal justice system, just. Pace the hanging and flogging brigade, it’s what separates us from the beasts. And it is always difficult to prove intent.
As well as querying whether the pre-trial procedure was even legal – once a suspect has been charged they have certain protections designed sub judice to ensure that, for instance, evidence of identification is not compromised – I felt, too, that another reason PC Philips might not have stood a chance is that someone, the incident controller, must have ordered him to stand in the path of the speeding vehicle. Could the furore have also been stirred-up out of embarrassment, to draw flak away from a bungled operation that led to the death of an officer?
These incidents are of course always investigated exhaustively and at very long length by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, who will no doubt be looking once again at the whole question of whether, in an age of electronic surveillance, high-speed Kojak-style car chases need be initiated by police over minor crimes when lives are not at stake, and why it is considered sensible and safe (and not complete bloody madness) to burst the tyres of a speeding car in a built-up area?
Many organisations online are asking the same, not just the BogPo. Indeed, every time the highly publicised (and fortunately very rare) death of a police officer on duty is followed by the almost unnoticed death of a civilian involved in some way with the police, of which there are many, many more instances, there is a moral dilemma to be discussed, questions, debate – but never, seemingly, political action.
You see, another young man, Joshua Dobby, 23, has just been remanded in custody following an incident in South London yesterday.
Also being pursued in a stolen car by police, the suspect apparently lost control and hit a group of pedestrians, killing ten-year-old ‘promising’ child-actor Makayah McDermott and his aunt, Rozanne Cooper, and injuring three young girls. There is community grief, flowers, emotional reporting – but no indignant police campaign finding Dobby guilty in advance of any hearing, no police PR detrimental to the probability of a fair trial.
Dobby (reports now say he is the estranged son of a millionaire businessman – again not the sort of pre-trial reporting I was used to doing) has been charged, not with murder, not with manslaughter, but with the lesser offence of causing death by dangerous driving, and various other offences relating to stealing a car. The IPCC is ‘investigating’. According to the BBC News report:
Over the past 10 years, 252 members of the public have died following road traffic incidents involving the police in England and Wales, according to the IPCC. In London, there were 498 crashes involving a pursuit by Met officers in 2015-16.
The IPCC, however, is involved in investigating only four out of ten incidents of this kind. The rest are locally investigated by the police themselves. Between 2005 and 2009, according to a Daily Mirror investigation, 22 civilians (some of them, possibly, fathers-of-two) were killed specifically in the course of high-speed police chases of suspects. Since 2006, apart from PC Philips, two officers that I can find have died during vehicle pursuits, both in accidents involving their own cars.
The inference has to be, doesn’t it, that the police – who do a professional and sometimes dangerous job – live in a bubble in which the principle that it is their duty to protect the public can sometimes be turned on its head. So few are ever tried or dismissed on counts of reckless endangerment. (Some are: a police driver who killed a teenager in 2014 while driving at 90 mph in a 30 mph zone to attend a report of minor shoplifting was sentenced to three years in gaol.)
They must know that racing around an urban residential environment at lunatic speed is dangerous even for trained drivers; that kids who boost cars aren’t trained drivers and are probably off their faces on drugs and alcohol; that a stolen car or a minor break-in really isn’t worth a life – or a life sentence. Often, their handlers do tell them to back-off. Sometimes they don’t.
Could they all not just be told to think more proportionately? Maybe watch a little less TV?
In the wake of my piece on the Liverpool case, I received a single hate Comment, accusing me of being a f***ing stupid ‘solicitor’ and other, lesser crimes. What I found more disturbing was that in the news Comment threads, many more people were calling for the death penalty to be applied, for Clayton Williams to be raped and killed in prison (this was before he had been tried), and – extraordinarily – many expressed disappointment that he had turned out not to be a black man, as his name seemed to suggest.
We seem to be a society increasingly losing its moorings. Perhaps we always have been.
Penultimate night at the Proms
Oh goody, an improvised-on-stage, postmodernist piece for 15 assorted musicians, composed by the late Hector Berlioz, conducted telepathically ad hominem by Sir Simon Rattle.
At last, some music which, when the i-Player freezes and the little pink circle whizzes round for 30 seconds, it almost seems deliberate; part of the performance.
As for the BBC’s being able now to legally insist that i-Player viewers have to pay the same licence fee as viewers of their broadcast channels, can we please have an assurance?
We’d also like to be able to watch those movies you won’t let us see for copyright reasons, that broadcast viewers are allowed to see, please.
That’s the way the Cookies crumble
For feck’s sake!
I was just reading a piece on the Guardian website by Marina Hyde, some tough liberal-lefty love about Donald Trump and why he’s probably just pissed about his Balkan trophy wife Alania getting all the attention in the Mail and stuff which is why he has let her sue for libel.
And there was a link to an even more mordant and very funny analysis by Garrison Keillor in the Chicago Tribune of Trump’s crude locker-room, social-climbing mentality. (Trump is only from Queen’s and he wants to be more respected by the uppity Manhattan Jews. Is there something a little anti-semitic when you summarise it like that?)
And I got to the end of it nodding approvingly and not, I have to say, without a pang of writerly jealousy, only to be confronted by….
Ouwhaouwhaouwha… eerie flashback music
Okay, so yesterday I went looking for presents for the boy’s birthday (he’s 23) and I was outside the music store and I went in and bought a harmonica, the most expensive Hohner Pro-Harp they had in the window, looking dead cool in black and gold, as you do.
The saleslady asked which key I wanted it in and I mused, well, if I were a folk musician it’d have to be D, but for general purposes maybe C, although as a jazz devotee and in tribute to the great Toots Thielemans, at 94 (he retired last year) one of this brutal year’s crop of sadly dead musicians, Berlioz among them, I thought probably A-flat.
A-flat and C weren’t in stock, however, and I’m no folkie, so I ended up rationalising that with E, at least I could use it to tune my guitars. I lightly tossed away the £32, having earlier learned with pleasure that I was only £138 overdrawn this month, but then I reasoned in the car: birthday boy wouldn’t really want a harmonica, would he?
After all, he’s a trumpet player who hasn’t practised for years, and gave up piano as soon as his teacher started telling us how promising he was, he takes after his dad, but my own birthday was coming along nicely so I could pretend it was really a present to myself. (Except I’ve also just bought a soprano sax I don’t know how to play. It’s a challenge!)
And it truly does make a nice noise, rich and smooth, wha-de-wah; but the key was still bugging me. It wouldn’t play along with my favourite tracks, or with Mahler’s 7th on TV from the BBC Proms. E isn’t a great key for singers, either.
(I became mesmerised by the sheer expense of those glistening instruments in the Berlin Philharmonic and watched it around twice, all 80 minutes, just to wonder among other things at the incredible euphonium I estimated to be worth maybe 80,000 euro. It seemed to be made from some lustrous other-worldly substance than humble brass.)
At the same time, who says pensioners can’t multitask?, I was browsing around to see if anyone had an A-flat Hohner Pro-Harp for sale, and yes, everyone did, but not in stock (available to order).
So, as my real birthday (like the Queen, I have two – one on the actual day I was born, and one for whenever I’m feeling unloved) is not for another month, I bookmarked a Hohner store and went about my normal business (Bacardi shots, pissing in the garden, re-reading my old stuff…).
And blow me, if at the foot of the page of the Trib website, all the way from Chicago, Ill., weren’t some helpful picture suggestions for having a lovely day consuming more stuff. Like, for instance:
Harmonica by Gear4music £2.99 – gear4music com
And now it seems the entire webinet knows I bought a harmonica and that I went online to find one in A-flat, that I’d even consider buying another one for a lousy £2.99, and now I’m in the Chicago Tribune and everything and I’ll never be allowed to forget that it was Pete’s birthday and I meanly kept the present I bought him all for myself.
Hey, America, I took a crap this morning! Wanna know what it looked like?
Oh, you already do. It’s on Shitface.