Like Michael Brown in Ferguson, the name of Mark Duggan is a shorthand for police violence that is either murderous and unaccountable, or necessary and laudable. Which depends on the extent to which one is prepared to think critically about the state. Duggan, a 29-year-old man from Tottenham in North London, was shot dead by police on the 4th of August 2011. Yesterday the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) released a 499 page report into his death that clears the police of wrongdoing.
Duggan was shot twice on exiting a taxi on Ferry Lane, by an officer known as V53. A gun was later found 4.35 metres from his body, on a patch of grass over a fence. This gun had apparently been carried in a shoebox – the box bears prints from both the alleged supplier Kevin Hutchinson-Foster, and Duggan – but there are no prints or DNA from Duggan on the gun itself. The muzzle of the gun was covered by a sock, and no fibres from this sock were found on Duggan's body or clothing. In other words, in terms of the forensics, there's no evidence that Duggan ever touched the gun, only the box. It's important to bear this in mind.
At Hutchinson-Foster's trial, V53 claimed to have shot Duggan out of an "honest[ly]-held belief that he was about to shoot me or one of my colleagues." He attributed this belief to the fact that he saw the gun (the one which has none of Duggan's DNA on it) in Duggan's hand, pointed in his direction. He described this as "a 'freeze frame' moment", in which he saw the gun with total clarity. This moment, he said poetically, was "like when you pause your Sky Plus or your TV recorder", allowing him to view Duggan's hands with such precision that he "could make out the trigger guard, the barrel... I was 100 per cent convinced that he was carrying a handgun." At this point, V53 said, Duggan aimed the gun at him, so he fired twice, killing him within ten seconds.
After the shooting, V53 and the other officers on the scene gave statements containing the barest minimum detail, doing little more than confirming that the taxi had been stopped, Duggan got out, and was shot dead. They gave more substantive statements a few days later, after getting together in a room and conferring amongst themselves. All refused to be interviewed by the IPCC, only giving written answers to the questions posed to them. The IPCC report admits at paragraph 1653 that "the lack of an open, face-to face dialogue limits the extent to which the IPCC can effectively probe and verify the detail of [V53's] account", yet claims at paragraph 1715 that they have "never simply accepted... the truthfulness and accuracy of the officers' accounts... [but have] attempted to probe, challenge and question the officers' evidence throughout the investigation."
So the IPCC definitely probed the evidence, except when they couldn't.
Despite their empty criticisms of police collusion, and the blatant contempt which police exhibit towards the "Independent" body that is supposed to investigate them, the IPCC report ultimately finds in the police's favour, accepting that V53's "honestly held belief" (a wording which, for obvious reasons, V53 seems to have lifted directly from "Beckford v R" where the test for self-defence is defined) was indeed genuine.
There are still questions to be asked. All of the police accounts agree (naturally, since they conferred with each other when they wrote them) that Duggan did not throw anything during the incident. Witness B, who lived opposite and claimed to have seen the shooting, also said that Duggan had not thrown anything. So why was the gun found over 4 metres from his body? Some people have speculated that in fact the gun stayed in the shoebox during the incident and was moved after the shooting by police, a theory which fits with the forensic evidence, and with the evidence of some of the witnesses at last year's inquest. The IPCC dismiss the accounts of these witnesses out of hand, saying that their accounts have inconsistencies – a flaw which is arguably common in genuine memories of dramatic events that have not been robotically dictated by a police lawyer. The IPCC also claim, more convincingly, that mobile phone footage of the aftermath shot from a flat opposite, does not appear to show a gun being planted.
The alternative view is that Duggan threw the gun away. This was the conclusion of the jury at the inquest. Eight of the jurors thought that he had thrown it onto the grass before any police officers reached the pavement, and a ninth concluded that he had thrown it away shortly after exiting the taxi. Only one juror noted that none of the witnesses to the inquest had described seeing Duggan throw anything away.
The IPCC also opts for the thrown gun scenario, albeit with a conclusion that is slightly at odds with the inquest jury. Rather than throwing the gun away before the shooting, they conclude that Duggan was in the process of throwing it away in the exact moment that he was shot. This is, apparently, "the most plausible explanation" for its eventual location.
Why is this the most plausible explanation? What evidence, specifically, can the IPCC draw on to state that Duggan was in the act of throwing away a gun while shot? Certainly not the evidence of V53, who described in great detail a gun held in Duggan's hand and aimed at police. What permits the IPCC to essentially take on trust every single aspect of the police officers' accounts, except in the one crucial detail that Duggan did not hold or aim a gun? Why is this "the most plausible" account?
The answer here depends, crucially, on the definition of plausible. For the IPCC, it seems, it is almost impossible to imagine police wrongdoing. That claim might seem like quite a leap, but there's precedent in UK judicial history. In the case of the Birmingham Six – a group of innocent Irish men who police tortured into false confessions – the judge Lord Denning blocked their attempt to take a civil action against West Midlands Police for the violence they had suffered. He did so on the basis that, if they lost, it would be a waste of time, but if they won, "it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous... That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, 'It cannot be right that these actions should go any further'." In other words, Denning simply would not entertain the prospect of police wrongdoing, and so declined to investigate any allegation of it.
In the same way, the IPCC seems to regard the police as moral by definition, and is inclined to regard any account of an event that exonerates the police as a priori the "most plausible". In this case, this has meant constructing a narrative whose crucial details have little basis in the available evidence. They have failed the family of Mark Duggan – remember, regardless of the frequently alleged, mostly unsubstantiated flaws of Mr Duggan, it is his family that the IPCC are supposed to protect – just like they have failed the literally thousands of other people who have seen loved ones die at the hands of, or in the custody of, the police. If the purpose of the IPCC is to be independent, or to secure justice, or to make the police accountable, then it is not fit for purpose. It should be scrapped.
There is a final coda here. Last weekend the Mail on Sunday suggested that Kevin Hutchinson-Foster could have been a protected police informant. It took police nine weeks to arrest him for allegedly supplying a gun to Duggan, and he had previously seen gun charges mysteriously dropped, in a case for which the Crown Prosecution Service claims to have lost the paperwork. This is significant because of the critical light it throws on the operation to follow and arrest Duggan. If Hutchinson-Foster had some kind of close, ongoing relationship with police, why did his handlers seemingly allow him to distribute guns? The Met often say following successful arrests that they have "taken a dangerous firearm off the streets". Keeping such weapons off the streets of London is a good aim, but less coherent as a policy if those dangerous firearms are put onto those same streets by protected police informants.
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