One of the most notorious incidents of the Vietnam war was the My Lai massacre which took place on March 16 1968. Around 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, were killed in cold blood by a unit of American soldiers who were ostensibly searching for Viet Cong fighters.
The massacre was only halted when a separate American helicopter crew under the command of an Officer called Hugh Thompson intervened by landing their helicopter between troops from the 2nd Platoon (who were carrying out the massacre) and a group of civilians (women, children and the elderly) who were attempting to escape. Thompson ordered his gunners to shoot the men of the 2nd Platoon if they attempted to kill any more civilians, and was then able to help many of the survivors of this atrocity get to safety.
Despite Thompson’s heroism he was initially cold shouldered by the US Military hierarchy, which was more intent on covering up the massacre than bringing the perpetrators to justice. Thompson was ostracised by many fellow soldiers for having broken the code of ‘brotherhood’ which they believed should have lead Thompson just to ‘look the other way’ as the civilians were killed. Indeed, when the true horror of what had occurred finally became public and Thompson was called to testify before the US Armed Services Committee in late 1969, the Congressman who was the Chairman of the Committee actually attempted to have Thompson Court Marshalled – for having turned his weapons on fellow American soldiers.
It was only decades later that the heroism of Thompson and his crew was properly recognised and they were awarded the Soldier’s Medal.
Stories like this are rare in war time. It is easy to imagine how, in the heat of battle, soldiers consider that loyalty to their comrades is a higher calling than the morality of what is objectively right and wrong.
Experience has taught me that similar considerations as on the front line of battle, also appear to heavily dictate morality on the ‘thin blue line’ of front line policing.
I cannot think of a single incident in any of the thousands of cases I have dealt with over my career, many of which have involved shockingly unjustified acts of violence, or arrests based on blatant untruths – including civilians being tasered in the back, tasered in the eye or having limbs broken by repeated baton strikes or kicks – in which another officer has physically intervened to stop a criminal act being perpetrated by one of their colleagues, let alone sought to arrest the other officer for his unconscionable behaviour.
At best it seems, unlawful arrests and over the top acts of violence are met with mild words of protests from fellow officers – although it is more likely that the other officers will in fact not reprove their colleague at all, but simply choose to ‘look the other way’ as the war criminals at My Lai were hoping Hugh Thompson would.
It is not right that the ‘thin blue line’ be some kind of zone of ‘barley’ wherein police officers are granted by one another immunity for committing the kind of criminal acts that they are supposed to be there to prevent in the first place.
After all, most police officers who unlawfully assault someone do so right under the noses of another police officer – who will generally not only fail to intervene, but in fact later provide a statement corroborating – or at best neither corroborating nor ‘calling out’ – their colleague’s actions. Whilst I accept it would take an act of significant personal courage for police officers to start to do the right thing in such situations – risking like Hugh Thompson did being shunned and spat upon by their colleagues (metaphorically at least) – imagine the step change in quality of policing those setting such a brave example could lead to.
Imagine if the US officers who had stood by with their hands in their pockets whilst life and breath were crushed out of George Floyd’s body over 9 agonising minutes had intervened to haul the now convicted murderer, but at that point one of their brothers in blue, Derek Chauvin, away from Floyd. Instead these 3 (now also former Minneapolis police officers) Thomas Lane, J Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao face trial on charges of aiding and abetting Floyd’s murder.
Meanwhile in this country, a murder trial continues in relation to the death of former Aston Villa striker Dalian Atkinson, with PC Benjamin Monk being accused of having fired his taser at Atkinson for nearly 7 times longer than the standard deployment and also having repeatedly kicked Atkinson in the head (whilst Atkinson was on the ground and unresponsive) so hard that an imprint was left upon the dying man’s forehead. The jury were told that Monk’s boots were bloody by the time he had finished the assault and that Monk casually remarked to a paramedic “He may be a bit bloody as I have had to kick him”.
This terrible assault was perpetrated in front of another officer, PC Mary Ellen Bettley-Smith – but rather than intervene to stop or even arrest her colleague, PC Bettley-Smith is alleged to have joined in with the assault by using her baton against Atkinson when he was on the ground.
Another stark example is the case of my client Mark Bamber who was subject to a brutal and unprovoked assault, including a flurry of punches to his face and chest, from PC Darren McIntyre in Mark’s home in June 2019. Not only was this assault witnessed by three of PC McIntyre’s colleagues, two of them were actually recording it upon their body cameras but then chose to deliberately switch off their machines to hide the evidence of what McIntyre was doing. Indeed, it appears clear that the other Officers’ immediate thoughts were how they could assist their colleague in covering up his crime, rather than attempting to stop that crime. That decision in the heat of the moment was then followed up in the cold light of day by the four Officers collaborating to craft statements with a view to exonerating PC McIntyre and putting the blame on Mark.
For these despicable actions all four officers were recently rightly convicted at Liverpool Crown Court for the offence of perverting the course of justice.
It is disappointing, but sadly true, that our level of expectation of police conduct when it comes to crimes committed by their own is that we are pleasantly surprised when they simply do not actively lie on behalf of one another; but imagine if those expectations could be overturned by officers who were prepared to act on the basis that their first duty is to the law – and not to one another.
How much better for everyone would it have been if the three other officers in Mark’s kitchen had immediately intervened to pull their colleague away from Mark and clap McIntyre, not Mark, in handcuffs.
It may sound almost laughable to try to paint such an alternative picture, but actually it is the situation we have now which is the terrible joke – that the uniform of a police officer should be presumed to be ‘armour’ against the very laws which he who is wearing it, is supposed to uphold.