This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Last Wednesday, PC Andrew Ott, a police evidence gatherer, was sentenced to eight months in prison for Actual Bodily Harm against student protester Will Horner. For all the rampaging, horse-charging, baton-flailing police brutality meted out at all of the late-2010 UK student protests, this is the first and so far only time a police officer has been convicted for any offenses.
The typical narrative of the demonstration on the 9th of December, the evening of the parliamentary vote to triple the cap on tuition fees, concentrates on violence from protesters. It was protesters who provoked a kettle in Parliament Square. It was protesters who attacked police with missiles, and it was protesters who attacked the treasury building.
As an evidence gatherer on that day, it was PC Ott's role to prove some of this criminal behavior. He was equipped with a recording device to log just this kind of protester violence. But a small electrical fault, that led him to believe it was inoperable when in actuality it was working just fine, meant that he inadvertently gathered the "wrong" kind of evidence—which you can listen to here—the sort that said less about protester violence and much more about police brutality.
I've had enough of these cunts, I just fucking hit him.
A jury at Southwark Crown Court found Ott guilty after hearing the audio evidence. He is heard saying after knocking out Horner's tooth, "not me mate, you slipped on the metal fence." It had actually been Ott's riot shield that caused the injury, he later admitted. His own recording device also picks up such telling nuggets as: "I've had enough of these cunts, I just fucking hit him"; "I wanna kill this little lot here, mate. If that fence goes, I'm going to f****** batter them"; and "I've clouted a few as well, just to get a bit of justice." Y'know – standard riot-cop banter.
There has been little justice for protesters caught in that kettle in the winter of 2010. Anyone who was there can attest to the utter relentlessness of brutality, sustained for many hours. It all culminated in a crush of protesters on Westminster Bridge. At the end of the audio linked above you can hear people screaming that they fear they might die.
Alfie Meadows, who was then a 20-year-old student very nearly did die after a police baton strike to the head required him to have lifesaving brain surgery. They then later charged him with violent disorder, of which is he was acquitted after nearly three years.
Other protesting students weren't so lucky, going to prison for lengthy jail terms after being charged with "violent disorder." Many of these crimes were against property, such as the smashed windows of Milbank Tower. Their sentences were much heavier than that PC Ott now faces.
The audio evidence that meant Ott was prosecuted gives a snapshot of his violent approach toward policing, but he appears not to have been the only one. Often he was speaking to other cops when he made threats and this kind of chat didn't seem to attract any negative reaction.
In fact, a whole section of the recording details how other police saw Will Horner as having done nothing wrong and Ott then proceeding to coax some kind of excuse for arrest out of them in order to account for his violent use of force. Some of the other officers oblige, one saying, "I forgot to tell you what happened, as he has jumped over there he has said: 'I'm going to fucking smash up that building.'" Ott replied: "Perfect."
And why wouldn't they? They had spent the day repressing the protest. To them Will Horner was no different to the other demonstrators.
Given the scale of cracked skulls, broken bones, and bruising after being subjected to horse charges, baton charges, and crushing kettling, it is hard to pretend Ott is an exception. He was just stupid enough to get himself caught. Ott's actions and words were vile, but they happened within a context that saw public order policing having to happen this way.
With this in mind it is hard to feel much more than ambivalence toward his custodial sentence. Sure he acted heinously, but the reality is that the whole damn system acted heinously and continues to do so. The worry is that this individual conviction will be used to absolve the police more widely—used to show that the police are in fact accountable. Another possibility is that this conviction can pierce the myth of violent-protestor/victim-cop. Perhaps it will allow us to look with fresh eyes at how this summer's protests are policed and to convince others that police are not infallible.