ENGLAND: MAIMED BY A POLICE DOG – FOR BEING A FOOTBALL (SOCCER) FAN
(POLICE LEAK) Last year, returning from a football match, student Tommy Meyers was savaged by a police dog while being arrested for assault. Now, following his acquittal, he and his family talk about the incident
Until 11 September last year, the police were rather admired in the Meyers household. Tony Meyers is a firefighter, a profession in which you work closely with the police and tend to get on with them, and his younger son, then 17, had done work experience with the police and was considering it as a career.
All that changed in a few dreadful seconds on Reading station, when the two of them were forced to watch as officers handcuffed Tony’s older son, 20-year-old Leeds University student Tommy, forced him on to the ground, and set a police dog on him. The dog bit fiercely into Tommy’s face – he couldn’t even raise his handcuffed hands to protect himself. The injuries will be with him for the rest of his life, partly because the police refused him access to antibiotics for 14 hours, by which time infection had taken hold.
Tommy, a slightly built, taciturn and rather serious student of medical biochemistry who is thinking about training to be a doctor, was acquitted of assault and resisting arrest last month. I ask him what he thinks of the police now. He pauses for a moment to put his thoughts in order and says quietly: “They’re cruel, inhumane, barbaric and brutal. They look on people with disdain. They think they are above everyone else. I have no faith at all in the police.” Tony says: “The only trouble I witnessed that day was caused by the bullying police thugs who think they can do what they want and get away with it.”
That day last September started no differently from dozens of Saturdays in the Meyers home: Tony and his two sons, all Crystal Palace supporters, set off for an away match at Reading, which Palace lost 3-0. After the match there was some aggravation between police and Palace fans. At the railway station, the fans were herded on to the Paddington-bound platform, even though some, including the Meyers, wanted to go to a different destination. Some protested vociferously, and a group of fans taunted the police, who thought the situation serious enough to draw their tasers and use batons. The Meyers were briefly confronted by a group of officers and hit by a baton as they crossed the bridge to the platform; they insist they did nothing to deserve it.
One of the officers who confronted them, PC Jonathan McHugh – not the officer who used the baton – says he was assaulted by a Palace fan. He was not seriously hurt, and had no visible injuries, and no one else saw the assault. However, McHugh is adamant, not only that it happened, but that he kept his eye on the man who assaulted him for the next 10 minutes or so, despite the fast-moving and difficult situation on the platform, in order to arrest him when he had time. This man, he says, was Tommy.
A train arrived and removed most of the supporters. Then McHugh went to the other end of the platform, where the Meyers were talking. It’s common ground that at this stage Tommy was calm and following his father’s advice to co-operate with the officer.
What happened next is bitterly disputed. The Meyers say McHugh gave no explanation for instantly handcuffing Tommy; McHugh says he told Tommy he was arresting him, but did not say what for. Police say Tommy struggled and kicked out; the Meyers faimly dispute this. What is not in doubt is the following: that a very tall officer got Tommy in a headlock while McHugh held on to his arms; that between five and seven officers separated Tommy from his father and brother and pointed tasers at their faces; and that a woman dog handler was on hand but did not release her dog because, she said, she threatened Tommy with a spray gun and that stopped him from struggling, so the dog was not needed.
It’s also not in doubt that another dog handler, Jamie Gilson, came from another part of the station, and deliberately deployed his dog while Tommy was on the ground. Gilson later claimed he released the dog at Tommy’s legs but that Meyers swivelled 90 degrees; Meyers says he did not swivel, and was not able to do so. The dog bit his face. To show me how the dog used its jaws, Meyers holds his thumb and forefinger expressively against his cheek and neck. The dog embedded its teeth millimetres below his eye, and just behind his ear.
Meyers says: “This dog was jumping all over the place. I went rigid like a dead body. There was a lot of pain and a lot of blood. I knew from my own medical knowledge that I’d been badly hurt.”
They took him to the hospital, where he was given 30 stitches and antibiotics were dispensed but not administered. The police took the medicine away and took him to the police station, where he was not allowed the antibiotics or painkillers until about 10.30 the next morning, though he asked for them. Thames Valley police are unable to comment on the reason for this. He was released at 3.30pm that afternoon. He was later charged with the assault on McHugh and with resisting arrest.
By the time he was allowed to take the antibiotics, they were not effective, and Meyers woke on Monday in great pain and with weeping wounds, and went straight to hospital. The consultant said that an immediate operation was vital, otherwise the infection would spread to his lungs and he would die. Infected skin was cut away and plastic tubes inserted to drain the infection. He has permanent nerve damage and, to his parents’ distress, his voice is now muffled. He spent a week in hospital. His breathing is still not easy, and doctors have advised a further operation.
He says the incident seriously affected his academic performance. He has also had counselling and anti-depressants.
The dog handlers and Meyers’ custody are the responsibility of Thames Valley police, who say: “We have no record of a complaint against the police regarding this incident and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment.” Amanda Jacks at the Football Supporters’ Federation says: “Standard procedure is to wait until the end of criminal proceedings before making a formal complaint.” PC McHugh is a member of the British transport police, which says: “Our officers will always deal with those engaging in intimidating, disorderly and antisocial behaviour to ensure that fans who are out to watch football, along with other members of the public using trains, can do so in safety.”
The use of dogs in policing football crowds is increasingly controversial. Meyers’s story has uneasy echoes of the events which resulted in Chelsea supporter Cliff Augur and his son James being taken to Charing Cross hospital in 2008. Augur was on the ground, but, unlike Meyers, not handcuffed, so he had some means of protecting himself: “I remember seeing the dog in my face. I held onto the dog by the scruff of the neck. I was horrified and frightened. I thought that if I hung on to the dog I could stop it from doing some serious damage to me.” But he had no protection against the policeman who kicked him, breaking four ribs and puncturing his lung. James had bites from the police dog on his leg.
The identity of the officer who kicked Augur has never been discovered, though several of his colleagues must have seen what he did. He is still, presumably, policing the streets of London. I have the name and description of a suspect, and this has been given to the police, but no action appears to have been taken.
As one of his bail conditions, Meyers was banned from going to matches. This is another increasingly controversial aspect of football policing. The FSF believes bans are issued too easily, and points to the widespread use of section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006, which allows police to order people out of an area, to prevent innocent fans from attending football matches. In one notorious case, Stoke City fans were herded on to a coach and not allowed to get off until they were home, even after pleading to be allowed to go to the lavatory. By the time the coach got to Stoke, it was flooded with urine. Many supporters feel they are herded around contemptuously when they are doing nothing more sinister than seeking to watch football.
The civil rights organisation Liberty has condemned the continued use of Section 27 against football supporters, calling it “part of a pattern of the law being used against football supporters in a way that can become a denial of their civil liberties”.
Policing of football matches has caused the FSF so much concern that they launched a campaign called Watching Football is Not a Crime. They say that Meyers’ case is one of many in which supporters are treated as though they are all criminals; and that while there certainly are some violent football supporters, the police approach stigmatises all fans.
For the FSF, the police attitude was summed up at Meyers’ trial, when his barrister asked PC McHugh why he arrested Meyers without considering alternatives, as he is obliged to do. “It was football day, it was football-related, there was disorder on the day,” he replied. “There are always issues at football, there is always disorder.” The officer had put into words what many football supporters believe to be the general police culture. His force, the British transport police, puts it slightly more diplomatically, saying that disorder at matches “remains a challenge”.
“Too many officers who physically police fans on a match day seem to believe that football supporters equal trouble,” says Jacks, “although there is sympathy for our concerns among some senior-ranking officers.”
Now Meyers has been acquitted, the ban on attending matches has been lifted, but he says: “I’ll never go to away matches again. You lose all your human rights on an away match.”