Broadwater Farm: another era in policing - or was it?
Robert Chesshyre: When PC Blakelock died, the police on London estates acted like ‘an army of occupation’
The murder in 1985 of community police officer Trevor Blakelock on the Broadwater Farm, Tottenham, north London, was not quite so far back in the mists of half-remembered time as the TV series Life on Mars, but the news that a man (then a boy) has been arrested and bailed on suspicion of the killing stirs memories of what most police-watchers would say today was another era. Or was it?
In 1985 Britain was on the racial edge. Four years earlier, riots had erupted in Brixton, south London, and other large cities; relations between police and Afro-Caribbean communities were hostile to the point of urban warfare; and, although among blacks and the inner city poor the police were known to fabricate evidence with the help of time-dishonoured interrogation techniques, the broader public were still (just) prepared to accept a policeman's word in court.
PC Blakelock, by all accounts the sort of decent officer that all communities want patrolling their streets, was horribly hacked to death with machetes and stabbed with knives. He was trying to protect firemen fighting blazes that raged across a notorious estate that had become a virtual no go area. The cause of that day's violence was the death by heart attack of Cynthia Jarrett, a middle-aged black woman who collapsed when police searched her Broadwater flat for allegedly stolen goods.
The 'Farm' was a tinder-box of suppressed anger at the way it and other such hard-pressed estates were then policed by a force that seemed in the words of a senior police officer I knew like 'an army of occupation'.
What officers said went; day-in and day-out young blacks, especially those with spirit about them, were on the harsh receiving end. Detection was much like Life on Mars days, and 'rounding up the usual suspects' was a kneejerk first move in any inquiry.
Amongst the 'suspects' rounded up after PC Blakelock's killing was a large young black man named Winston Silcott, who was instantly demonised both by police and media, then almost solid in their support for the 'boys in blue'.
Silcott looked the part (especially in police photos): bushy black hair and beard, staring eyes. He was the bogey man of Middle England nightmares, and despite a dodgy case against him and other accused he was convicted of Blakelock's murder. "Job done," said the satisfied cops.
Except it wasn't. The convictions of Silcott and his fellow accused were thrown out on appeal in 1991. Surprise, surprise, the latest forensic techniques revealed that pages in police notebooks bearing 'incriminating' statements by Silcott had been inserted at a later date.
No murder is ever officially closed, but some are pursued more vigorously than others, and none more vigorously than the murder of a police officer.
From time to time since, there have been 'significant' developments in the case, culminating with the arrest in Suffolk last Friday of a 40-year-old man, now bailed until May.
It is no longer the era of Life on Mars, and one can be fairly confident that, after the Stephen Lawrence murder and the subsequent Macpherson report that decided that the Metropolitan Police (the London force and by far Britain's largest) was 'institutionally racist', this inquiry will be conducted by the book.
But the case of Met Commander Ali Dizaei, convicted this week of abusing his office, assaulting and trying to 'fit up' a man to whom he owed money, reminds us that society must still be on the alert for gross police malpractice.
The judge branded Dizaei a 'criminal in uniform': it was a term I first heard used on an estate not unlike Broadwater Farm shortly after the sad, still unsolved killing of PC Blakelock. ·
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