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Tuesday, September 07, 2010 

Mark Andrews, Pamela Somerville and successful prosecutions of police officers.

What then, does the case of Sergeant Mark Andrews and Pamela Somerville tell us about the ingredients needed for successful prosecutions against police officers? Firstly, it seems, that the officer has do to something seemingly so out of proportion to the situation he faces, such as dragging along and then hurling a completely defenceless woman to a concrete floor, that it forces a less senior colleague, in this case PC Rachel Webb, to make clear her concerns. Second, that for the best possible chance of a conviction, it needs to be the police's own cameras which record what happened, rather than a member of the public's, or outside CCTV. Third, that instead of the video merely showing either the blows or push and impact, there needs to be more still: in this instance, the blood which dots the cell floor. Fourth, that it helps greatly for the victim to be middle class, female and middle-aged.

We don't, it should be clear, know for sure how Ms Somerville was behaving both during and after her arrest prior to her being dragged and flung across the station. She maintains that she didn't even know what she was being arrested for, something which generally the police, even when behaving in a manner as it seems Andrews might well have been, do tend to put across. Nonetheless, being asleep in a car is hardly the most heinous of offences, and it seems to be beyond dispute that was what caused the initial interest in her, with her refusal to give a breath test resulting in the fateful arrest. It should also be noted that the judge has criticised the evidence given by two other officers, who claimed that she was "violent and aggressive", suggesting that their version of events was unreliable, and that presumably the full footage was seen in court, leaving aside possible concerns about context or misleading editing.

Clearly, this is a completely different case to the assault on Ian Tomlinson or the dismissed claims of assault against Delroy Smellie, regardless of the possible insight it gives us into how the potential prosecution of police officers for the same or similar overall offences. It does however all lead into the same debate on how much force it's appropriate for the police to use, both against those who are complying and those who they deem not to be complying. Few would probably have many qualms about a clearly disruptive and violent young man say being treated in the same manner as Somerville was; the same people so aggravated on the Mail's website could well now be complaining vigorously if such was the case and the police officer had been jailed, or even congratulating the police on how they dealt with the situation.

All this said, and even taking into consideration that the injury could quite easily have been even worse had slightly more force been applied or if Somerville had landed differently, as well as how, as the judge said, this was a gross breach of trust and a breach of the standards the public expects from the police, it's still possible to regard the six month sentence as harsh. There's been nothing to suggest that this was anything other than Andrews simply losing his rag in this instance or not knowing his own strength; certainly, he should have attended to her much sooner, as he must have seen how she connected with the floor. That he didn't counts against him, yet if this was the first example of such force being used improperly, then either a suspended sentence, a fine or a community order would have been more appropriate. He looks certain to lose his job, which is punishment enough, and which also sets an example to other police officers that going over-the-top in such circumstances is completely unacceptable. True, it could be that this is the tip of the iceberg, and that other such similar examples of potential police brutality stay within internal disciplinary hearings and are regarded as little more than a formality. As much as the police are trained to use force effectively and must know better as a result, would a member of the public doing something similar get a six-month sentence if it was their first offence? Maybe in some cases, but in plenty of others probably not. Consistency is crucial, and that's something which we continue to aspire towards but is still not close to being achieved.

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