The striking thing about Plebgate is how much the very same issues crop up in minor public order trials in magistrates courts up and down the country. The unfolding scenarios are often highly similar: police incident reports and statements are treated as accurate records of the words that were said, and the gestures that accompanied them, and the account given by the person accused – who denies telling the police officer he was a ‘fucking pleb’ – is unlikely to be believed. Unless of course, some evidence comes to light, such as CCTV or other video recording, which casts doubt on the officers evidence.
In magistrates courts the police lies are less newsworthy than those that have caused such a fuss around Plebgate, but are depressingly predictable. The language used by the defendant inexplicably gets worse when it is recorded in police officer notebooks. Uses of words such as ‘fucking’ and other abusive terms that were never actually said, are nevertheless carefully recorded. Gestures made as a result of irritation, never likely to indicate a real threat, are recorded as violent or aggressive. And it is noteworthy how often, in a police officers statement, elderly ladies and women with children, or other members of the public, happen to be present and ‘visibly shocked’ by the language a defendant allegedly used.
It is remarkable and highly newsworthy that the police thought they could get away with this sort of behaviour in the public realm against a government minister. But it is no less abhorrent or shocking, that they are able to get away with it routinely in the courts. Andrew Mitchell is by no means the only person that has faced losing his job and livelihood as a result of evidence being exaggerated, embroidered or completely fabricated.
Time and again I have watched police officers giving evidence in magistrates courts in prosecutions for threatening, abusive or insulting works or behaviour (section 4 or section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986). They have made vehement assertions about what was said and done to them, and how this made them feel highly distressed, alarmed and even fearful. In some cases a number of police officers have given almost identical evidence, reporting the same nuances, the exact words, the precise gestures. And yet, when CCTV is produced, or video footage taken by independent journalists or legal observers, it is shown that the accounts the police produced, in all their glorious detail, are absolutely wrong.
No action is ever taken in these circumstance. The court invariably accepts that the police officers concerned were ‘mistaken’ rather than deliberately lying. The person who has had months of worry and anxiety has simply to walk out of the door and be grateful for it.
In many cases, of course, the defendant doesn’t have the advantage of smoking gun video evidence. Frequently, since the introduction of means testing for legal aid, the defendant doesn’t even have a lawyer. Trained, expert police witnesses, giving a clear and calm account of the abusive language that was uttered, are pitched against an inexperienced and intimidated defendant. The result is an easy win for the CPS and often serious consequences for the person convicted.
It is true, of course, that police lies have resulted in many more serious injustices than that apparently suffered by Andrew Mitchell, or those suffered in magistrates courts. Innocent people have had to suffer long periods of imprisonment as a result of witness testimony by police that was knowlingly misleading or plainly false. Police lies have also been used to manipulate public opinion and deflect blame away from police incompetence and brutality, such as the case of Charles de Menezes, who was reported as jumping a tube station barrier and wearing a coat thick enough to hide a bomb – none of which was true – before the police shot him dead on Stockwell station. Families of those who died in police custody also struggle to get to the truth of what happened to the person they loved.
The fact that the police have done worse things to some should not, however, completely divert attention from the still significant damage done by this form of low level corruption. Achieving minor convictions by embellishing the evidence a bit, especially in public order matters, is easy to achieve – so much so that I think a culture of dishonesty has developed around it. Collusion with others in exaggerating and fabricating abusive language and violent behaviour has become almost second nature to some police officers. This may be true even to the point that they have become arrogant enough to play this game with a government minister.
There is probably little that can ever be done to stop police officers lying. But a lot could be done to prevent courts convicting, simply on the word of a police officer. A lot could also be done to stem the continuing tide of police officers dragging people before the courts simply because they swore or used inappropriate gestures or body language towards a police officer. Alternatively of course, the courts could get a lot more robust in the way they deal with police officers that appeared to be wilfully committing perjury or perverting the course of justice. That, I think, would really cause a stir.