CCTV and police abuse of power
Investigations into the London Gaza protests last year have called into question how CCTV evidence is being used by police
Last week there was a slight tipping of the justice scales in relation to the London protests against the Israeli offensive in Gaza in January 2009. Protesters were awarded reduced sentences by the court of appeal who judged that the starting point for their sentences had been too high. Meanwhile, we had the first acknowledgement of police wrongdoing at the demonstrations. Beyond these documented facts lie much wider concerns about how the police used CCTV of the protests and how that affects the judicial process.
Twins Russell and Ashley Inglis were each struck forcefully on the head by a police officer at the Gaza demonstrations. They couldn’t identify the officer at the time because his number was covered. The IPCC referred their complaint to the Metropolitan police for internal investigation. The Met concluded that there was “no case to answer” because they could not identify the officer. The twins appealed this decision and were again told there was “no case to answer”. Disillusioned, the twins took their case to a solicitor for a civil claim and have now been awarded £25,000 compensation. This is the first public acknowledgement from the Met that aspects of policing at the demonstrations were unacceptable, though the officer remains unidentified.
By contrast, no effort was spared to pinpoint protesters. Following the Gaza demonstrations, police officers spent months trawling through hours of CCTV footage to identify protesters and compile dossiers and videos showing their misdemeanours, the majority of which involve throwing placards or bottles at lines of police in riot gear. More than 100 arrests were made and 65 people charged with violent disorder. At least 29 are now serving custodial sentences. It is only right that similar efforts are made to uncover police wrongdoing.
More worrying is the way in which CCTV is being used by the police. Demonstrator Jake Smith was charged with two counts of violent disorder. These charges were later dropped when Smith’s solicitor, Matt Foot, viewed the original CCTV footage and discovered that the police video had been edited to show events out of sequence, at one point implying another man was Smith while omitting footage showing Smith being assaulted by a police officer without provocation.
Considering the potential for abuse of power, the control that the police have had over the use of CCTV is frightening. Foot warns, “We should be both curious and suspicious about how the police use CCTV footage in these cases.”
Foot’s concern extends to how police have dictated the use of their edited material. Solicitors representing the protesters were told to sign an undertaking by the Met that prevented them sharing their police videos with anyone but their client. This stopped defence solicitors working together to establish a wider picture of the protests and their context. This worked hand in hand with the decision to charge all the protesters individually rather than collectively.
At the court of appeal last week, Lord Justice Thomas stated that the video evidence was good for identifying individuals at the protests but not helpful in providing an overview of the demonstrations. When considering sentencing for violent disorder, it is commonplace to consider the overall view of the protests first and then the individual acts second. It seems doubtful that any of the judges thus far have been able to sentence with all the facts necessary to form an accurate overview of the demonstrations.
The court of appeal upheld that it was correct to use deterrent sentences because we must deter protesters from acting in a violent manner towards police. But police officers are not being deterred from assaulting protesters. This is grossly hypocritical. The protesters who were sentenced for violent disorder did not commit anything as serious as assaults on individuals. The Met evidently cannot be relied upon to investigate their own officers. The IPCC needs to deal with police services who cannot hold themselves accountable. There are calls for a judicial inquiry into the handling of the Gaza protests. It is high time for a purposeful investigation examining police usage of CCTV in these cases. Only then will the Met be held accountable for its actions.