“If she weighed the same as a duck… she’s made of wood” – The police federation and the witchfinder general

Oh dear. The cops are angry. Odly enough, you won’t like them when they’re angry. From the press association:

The Police Federation accused IPCC chairman Nick Hardwick of running a witch-hunt against G20 officers and depicted him as a “grandstanding anti-police campaigner”.

Federation chairman Peter Smyth said he had written to the Government to complain about Mr Hardwick’s “deplorable” behaviour. “Keen, apparently, to don the mantle of witchfinder general, Mr Hardwick discusses some selective aspects of G20 and passes lofty and withering judgment on London’s police officers,” Mr Smyth said.

Let’s just examine that. He’s complaining about Nick Hardwick’s comments to the  Observer, all of them utterly unremarkable. The police should regard themselves as public servants – shocking! We need a public debate on policing demonstrations – no shit! The IPCC needs more resources to carry out investigations themselves. Seeing as 1/3 of their investigators are currently working on G20, and when a man dies during a police operation they are forced to accept the police’s story without any attempt to corroborate or challenge, that is hardly controversial.

Nick Hardwick is disparately trying to claw back some credibility for the IPCC, which has been caught red handed lying to the public on behalf of the people it is supposed to scrutinise. Being caught with your pants down doesn’t really do it justice, more a case of being interrupted right during the ‘money shot’. It’s not a good look, and Hardwick needs all the critical distance from the police that he can get.

The IPCC's greatest minds get to work on a case
The IPCC's greatest minds get to work on a case

But, back to Peter Smyth, who is very serious about representing rank & file plods, right down to embodying the worst of their PR cack-handedness. This is straight out of the same school of thought that greets any complaint with an incompetent lie, and hopes nobody notices. You’d think, in their line of work they would appreciate the importance of a story that hangs together, wouldn’t you? Unseasonably heavy jacket? Check. Now, as soon as the nominally independent body – which has a track record of being utterly supine – makes some businessman-like noises, they reach for the dictionary marked ‘extreme overreaction’ and start chucking out phrases like witchfinder general.

It’s an odd choice of words, particularly when you consider the myriad examples of less than neutral judges, which is more what he is actually trying to allege. Not that one expects the likes of Peter Smyth to have a full awareness of what he’s saying, but let’s amuse ourselves by looking into this one a bit more. There was only ever one witchfinder general, Matthew Hopkins – a charlatan and sadist, who made a gruesome living during the political chaos of the Civil War by identifying the vulnerable, torturing confessions out of them, and collecting a bounty from the local authorities. Using sleep deprivation, near drowning and nudity as tools of interrogation, this is a story for our times, but not because of Nick Hardwick.

Witchfinder general was not an official title, but a self-assumed one: he held no formal position and traded on his previous record to get work. Interestingly, the witchunts in Europe are closely associated with weak or non-existent political authority: as those like Hopkins wielded the  power to single out people and whim and ascribe guilt through esoteric methods and dubious practices –  pre-existing power structures tended to nip them in the bud. The Spanish inquisition, for example, had none of it. So, when there was political oversight, witchunts tended to be prevented from occurring. Hopkins was eventually exposed by a priest who looked into his behaviour and exposed his methods in a book. Citizen journalism? Old as the printing press.

It may seem unpalatable, but we have got priceless information about the Satan's activities by these methods
It may seem unpalatable, but we have got priceless information about the Satan's activities by these methods

Obviously Peter Smyth has never any of this, and draws on some vague memory of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ – itself inspired by the McCarthy Hearings of the 1950s. The atmosphere referenced is a situation where guilt by association is assumed, those under scrutiny fall over themselves to accuse each other, and any attempt to challenge the authority of the inquisitor is prima facie evidence of guilt. It is harder to think of anything less characteristic of the current atmosphere in the police than this picture. Despite the numerous documented criminal activities of the police during the G20 protests, how many of their colleagues have shopped them, despite it being their legal duty? What are Peter Smyth’s comments indicative of, if not the police closing of ranks in the face of criticism?

The police have long taken advantage of the leeway that they receive, and the impunity with which they behaved at the G20 doesn’t make it particularly wise to call to mind someone like Hopkins – a law unto himself, unaccountable and on the rampage, drunk on his own unassailability. Look again at the policeman demanding photographers leave an area – presumably because they were about to get heavy and didn’t want to be caught in the act. The officer refuses to be challenged about the basis for his demand, and it comes down to “get out of here, or I’ll arrest you, because I can”. Or alternatively read James Lloyd’s account (climate camp legal report, page 34) of coming as a legal observer to witness the raid on a squat  – which shows the police completely abusing their power to intimidate and prevent any recording of their activities (incidentally, several witness statements from inside the building suggest someone filming during the raid was taken into a separate room and beaten).

Look at the police conviscating copies of the New Statesman as evidence of an alternative political outlook, which clearly points to some measure of criminal intent. Or at them using pre-emptive arrest and bail conditions as an  injunction without the hasstle of proving anything in court, on 114 peoople whose only crime at the time was to congregate in a school together. The spectres of Hopkins and McCarthyism aren’t a very sensible historical analogy to be bringing up in this context. The most shocking thing is the demented sense of persecution that seems to have arisen in the police with the first sign of public disquiet at their activities. Over 400 people have died following police contact in the last 10 years – that’s more than three every month – and not a single officer has been convicted of murder or manslaughter in that time, yet any suggestion that their activities should be more rigourously scrutinised is taken as a vicious attack. What does that say?

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