Poor old Andrew Mitchell. The former Tory chief whip lost his job, was vilified by the media and loathed by the public for allegedly calling police officers at Downing Street ‘plebs’. Except as Mitchell has always claimed, he didn’t do it and evidence came to light which showed the police had told a fib or two. In fact, they’re continuing to stand by their fibs and refusing to apologise for attempting to ruin Mitchell’s life. Just because the person in question happens to be a Tory MP doesn’t somehow make it more OK than if Mitchell had been a shelf-stacker at Tesco.
Andrew Mitchell and Plebgate
The impact on Mitchell’s life was dramatic – an interview with The Economist described him as ‘drawn and anxious-looking, Mr Mitchell had lost over a stone in weight over the course of the month-long pillorying by the press that had caused him to resign.’ Imagine spending months being accused of doing something you didn’t do. Having everyone believe that despite your denials, there’s no smoke without fire. And as others have pointed out, if the police can do this to an MP in the public eye who has the financial means and ability to defend himself, what can they do to someone who hasn’t got Mitchell’s wherewithal?
No smoke without fire?
Something similar happened to a relative. I’m not going to reveal his name because he’s asked me not to. After 14 months of waiting for the trial, he’d quite understandably rather just get on with his life. In 2012, he was falsely accused of a sex offence by a group of people he didn’t know, and in fact had never even met. The so-called witnesses made a 999 call and reported him to the police, who visited his house and arrested him. He was kept in the cells overnight but even before interviewing him, the police had decided they were totally convinced of his guilt. They informed the man’s partner that they were ‘100% certain he was guilty’ and they were ‘determined to see him charged and convicted’. They even went as far as saying they had received numerous complaints about him over a long period of time, a claim which was totally untrue.
After being repeatedly bailed for four months and having his laptop confiscated, he was eventually charged. If you think that the police unfailingly investigate everything that comes their way with complete impartiality, you’d be wrong. The investigating officer in my relative’s case refused to take statements from people who could confirm his alibis, or in fact from anyone whose evidence didn’t support her case. Evidence which didn’t directly help the case against him wasn’t put forward to the CPS.
Worse, a transcript of the original 999 call had had a sentence removed. What was that missing sentence? It was the bit where the person making the 999 call admitted to lying about what he’d seen. The investigating officer failed to take a statement from the caller, despite knowing his name and where he lived from the outset. The same person had also visited my relative’s partner and was abusive and threatening. The investigating officer refused to act, first stating she wouldn’t because it would adversely affect the case against my relative, then saying she couldn’t take any complaint from his partner while the case was being investigated. No statement was taken from the caller at all until after the trial started even though his account disputed that of another witness. The first trial had to be adjourned for six months because the officer had failed to provide phone records. She still failed to provide them prior to the second trial and some were lost as a result. Much as I’d love to identify the police force responsible (especially as they have a string of accusations of incompetence, fraud and general negligence against them) I won’t for obvious reasons.
Thankfully, my relative was found not guilty. The other witnesses failed to turn up, perjured themselves when they did arrive, admitted perjuring themselves, threatened violence towards him and his family and demonstrated quite comprehensively that they were a lying bunch of shits. Even the judge called the investigation and the CPS’s case ‘prejudicial and negligent’. But in the 14 months this was all dragging on, my relative went through hell. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration in any way to say that it was probably the lowest point of his whole life. False allegations combined with a biased and thoroughly shoddy investigation by the police meant he could have ended up on the sex offenders’ register, in prison, or with a hefty fine, the loss of his career, his family and a the gain of a criminal record. To add insult to injury, his legal defence cost him in the region of £25,000, money which he will never get back. He never did find out why he had been targeted and no action was taken against the people who claimed to be witnesses.
Andrew Mitchell and my relative were relatively lucky in that they were able to defend themselves and had the financial means to do so. Mitchell also had the political clout to be able to push for an IPCC investigation. The Tesco shelf-stacker wouldn’t be so lucky – given the abysmal standard of investigation my relative experienced coupled with the lies and determination from Mitchell’s investigation, our poor shelf-stacker would most likely end up wrongfully convicted with his or her life utterly ruined.
So how can it be that some sections of the police can effectively fit people up with seemingly total impunity? There does seem to be a reluctance to hold police officers accountable for their actions. Look at the Ian Tomlinson case – the inquest found Tomlinson was unlawfully killed by PC Simon Harwood but Harwood was found not guilty. A string of 10 complaints in the 12 years of his career in the police was revealed afterwards, the majority of which he was never held accountable for. Unbelievably, in the wake of plebgate, a new code of ethics has been issued for the police which, according to the Guardian report, is ‘designed to force national standards of honesty and integrity on police officers’. I can’t be the only person who thinks that if the police need to have honesty and integrity forced upon them then perhaps they’re in the wrong job and we should be worried. A poll has also revealed that one in four people trust the police less as a result of plebgate.
I don’t necessarily think the lack of accountability is any one person or group’s fault. It’s come about from a combination of factors, including the police being allowed to investigate themselves in allegations of wrongdoing and the IPCC’s limited resources, a fact acknowledged by deputy chair Deborah Glass during the home affairs committee on plebgate. And there’s a fine line between being seen to deal with rogue officers and wrecking the public’s trust in the people who are supposed to protect them. But if being able to get justice after being falsely accused (whether it’s by a member of the public or the police themselves) relies on having powerful friends or being able to fund a specialised defence, then the majority of us don’t have much of a chance.
Oh, and want to know something scary? The investigating officer on my relative’s case was promoted to work in a sex offences team in the same police force.