Mr Bates v. The Post Office​ has brought into public consciousness the devastating impact of wrongful convictions, and the endless delays and obstacles to exoneration and compensation. I have spent 25 years working as a criminal defence lawyer and have yet to find anyone who knows of a single police officer being convicted for their role in a wrongful conviction.

Following the release of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, in 1989 and 1991, almost twenty years after they were found guilty of carrying out IRA bombings on the basis of forced confessions and faulty scientific evidence, a royal commission was set up to consider whether changes were needed in ‘the arrangements for considering and investigating allegations of miscarriages of justice when appeal rights have been exhausted’. Its findings resulted in the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) in 1997, which has since then referred more than eight hundred cases back to the courts (including seventy Post Office Horizon cases).

Charges were brought against police officers involved in the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six cases. In 1993 three officers were found innocent of charges of fabricating evidence in the Guildford case (Ronan Bennett wrote about this in the LRB of 24 June 1993), after a trial in which one of the Guildford Four, Paddy Armstrong, was consistently described as a bomber despite the success of his appeal. Later that year, three policemen were charged with perjury for their role in the conviction of the Birmingham Six, but the case collapsed after the judge held that the ‘extensive publicity and comment’ meant they would not receive a fair trial (as Armstrong’s solicitor pointed out in the LRB of 4 November 1993, no one had worried about prejudicial publicity at the time of the original trial). The prosecution of four officers involved in the case of the Bridgewater Four, wrongfully convicted of murdering a 13-year-old paperboy called Carl Bridgewater in 1978, was dropped in 1998, a year after the three surviving defendants were released by the Court of Appeal. In 2011, the biggest corruption trial of police officers in British legal history took place over the convictions of the Cardiff Three, imprisoned in 1988 for the murder of Lynette White and released in 1992 (the real killer was imprisoned in 2003). Eight former police officers were due to be tried for ‘acting corruptly together’, but the case collapsed after evidence was lost (it reappeared a few months later). Three witnesses, however, received custodial sentences for perjury in 2008, despite the police having used intimidation and bullying to obtain their statements, just as they had to secure the confession of one of the Cardiff Three, Stephen Miller.

Even when police officers are successfully prosecuted, the convictions they were involved in often remain unexamined. Since 2018 the Court of Appeal has quashed convictions in a string of cases involving Detective Sergeant Derek Ridgewell of the British Transport Police (BTP), all of which date from the 1970s. Most people were surprised to find that the Post Office can take people to court; it’s less surprising that the BTP – which essentially covers the railway network, stations and depots, as well as the Tube – can do the same. Ridgewell joined the BTP in 1964, aged nineteen. A couple of years later he was transferred to its CID (the BTP mirrors police departments and ranks) at the vast Bricklayers’ Arms goods depot off the Old Kent Road in South London. He worked as a dog handler there, with an Alsatian called Timber. In 1968, Ridgewell was transferred to BTP Force Headquarters CID, where his manager was Detective Inspector Maurice Woodman (who had previously worked at the Bricklayers’ Arms depot and was best man at Ridgewell’s wedding). In 1971, Ridgewell was promoted to uniform sergeant; he was then promoted to detective sergeant and posted to Baker Street, where he established a new unit, which quickly became known as the ‘anti-mugging squad’.

In 1978, Stuart Hall wrote in Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order of the emergence of a new word – ‘mugging’ – which was used to describe a supposedly ‘new strain of crime’:

In the ‘mugging’ period the police gained deliberate publicity in the media for their statements of concern about ‘crime and violence’; this was part and parcel of the control strategy … The role of the police in any campaign of the sort conducted against ‘mugging’ is similar to that of the media, but they come in to play at an earlier stage in the cycle.

Hall thought that the moral panic about mugging, which was identified as a crime perpetrated by black people, had begun in 1972 after arrests made by Ridgewell.

February and March 1972: these two cases are taking place months before the ‘mugging’ panic appears. Yet, already, the police had initiated special patrols on the underground. The organisational response on the ground long predates any official judicial or media expression of public anxiety. The situation was defined by the police as one requiring swift, vigorous, more-than-usual measures. This is where what came to be seen … as a ‘sharp rise in muggings’ really begins.

The first case Hall mentions is that of the Stockwell Six, who were arrested in February 1972 and went to trial at the Old Bailey in September that year. The victim in the case was Ridgewell himself. Hall wrote that

the evening paper report added that ‘Mr Timothy Davis, prosecuting, said that after a series of attacks on the Northern Line British Transport Police set up a special patrol. Shortly before 11 p.m. on 18 February Det. Sgt Derek Ridgewell got into an empty carriage at Stockwell Station – and the gang followed him.’ The ‘leader’ then threatened him with a knife, and demanded money. The gang closed in and Ridgewell was punched in the face, it was alleged. He then signalled to fellow officers waiting in the next carriage. A fight ensued and the teenagers were arrested. Five were found guilty of a variety of charges, ranging from ‘attempting to rob’ to ‘assault with intent to rob’ and were variously sentenced from six months’ detention to three years’ imprisonment. The report did not mention that this was a West Indian ‘gang’, or that the police themselves were the only witnesses.

One of the six defendants was acquitted because it was shown that his reading wasn’t good enough for him to understand the statement he had signed. The others were all convicted and sent to jail or borstal. The trial judge, Alexander Karmel, complained that ‘decent citizens’ were afraid to ‘use the Underground late at night … for fear of mugging’, which Hall describes as ‘the first media-recorded judicial invective against “mugging”’.

The Oval Four were arrested a few weeks later. The prosecution case was that on 16 March, ‘London Transport Police were keeping observation at the Oval station when they saw the four accused hanging around and it was clear that they intended to pick the pockets of passengers.’ After a trial lasting five weeks, they too were convicted of attempted theft and assaulting police officers. The youngest was sentenced to borstal, the other three to two years in prison.

In Policing the Crisis Hall lists ten features of the case:

1) these four men were members of the Fasimbas, a South London black, political organisation;

2) on the night in question the men claimed that the plain-clothed detectives first pounced on them, swore at them, produced no identification and so initiated the fight that led to the assault charges;

3) the defendants alleged that they were beaten up at the police station and forced to sign confessions;

4) the police officer in charge of the arresting patrol was Detective Sergeant Ridgewell;

5) the only prosecution witnesses were, once again, the police officers themselves;

6) no stolen property was found on the accused;

7) no ‘victims’ were approached nor produced ‘in evidence’ by the police;

8) the judge himself directed the jury to consider carefully whether ‘these statements are really fiction made up by Detective Sergeant Ridgewell’;

9) the judge discharged the jury from giving verdicts on the charges alleging conspiracy to rob and to steal. Thus only the charges of attempted thefts the police claim to have seen on the night in question and the assaults on the police were upheld;

10) the charges which were not sustained related to a series of thefts of handbags and purses around markets and Tube stations in Central London which the four were alleged to have confessed to.

Not all of Ridgewell’s 1972 prosecutions were successful. The case of the Waterloo Four was very similar to that of the Stockwell Six, but despite four signed confessions, the magistrates at Southwark Juvenile Court acquitted them. Their confessions were then sent to BTP headquarters so it could investigate the defendants’ allegation that they had been obtained through violence.

In July 1972 Ridgewell’s squad picked up two Rhodesian Jesuit students at Tottenham Court Road station. They were on their way to a social work training course at Plater College, Oxford. When asked at their trial in April 1973 whether he was on the lookout for ‘coloured young men’, Ridgewell replied: ‘On the Northern Line I would agree with that.’ The case was thrown out because the judge, Gwyn Morris, had serious concerns about the conduct of Ridgewell’s squad (‘I find it terrible,’ he said, ‘that here in London people using public transport should be pounced on by police officers without a word’). He told the defendants that ‘this case was brought without justification.’

After their trial there were calls for an investigation into the activities of the anti-mugging squad, and in 1973 the BBC current affairs programme Nationwide led with a segment about Ridgewell and his activities. That same month, the Court of Appeal reduced the sentences of the Oval Four but upheld their convictions, noting the ‘gravity’ of the offences. In August, the Labour Party’s spokesman on home affairs, John Fraser, wrote to the home secretary, Robert Carr, about the cases. The Sunday Times report on Fraser’s letter said that he had asked Carr ‘to pay special regard to the method of proof used by transport police’ and the lack of ‘independent witnesses’. According to the article, Ridgewell was notorious in the local community: ‘in the pubs around Brixton, the West Indians sing a calypso containing the line: “If the muggers don’t get you, Ridgewell will.”’ Fraser didn’t receive an official reply.

The BTP had already moved Ridgewell. In January 1973 he was transferred from Baker Street to BTP Force Headquarters, and in September 1974 he was sent to Waterloo. His anti-mugging squad was disbanded, but he faced no disciplinary action and was given a new job running a team investigating mail theft. In June 1975 he arrested Stephen Simmons and two others for stealing mailbags from a wagon in Clapham Goods Yard. Simmons and two friends had been out for the evening and were in his car when Ridgewell and two other BTP officers pulled them over. ‘When I was being questioned,’ Simmons told Duncan Campbell in the Guardian in 2017, ‘Ridgewell threw a trophy – something like a football cup – at me. It hit me on the chest and dropped to the ground and he said: “Pick it up.” I almost did, but for some reason I stopped and he said: “Very clever.” But not clever enough.’ Ridgewell was trying to plant Simmons’s fingerprints on the cup. When Simmons was tried in 1976, Ridgewell claimed that he had said: ‘We hadn’t got a chance to load it in the motor so don’t plant fuck all in it.’ Simmons and his co-defendants pleaded not guilty, despite the duty solicitor’s advice that it would work against them to call the police liars, but were convicted.

Ridgewell’s next move was more ambitious. In November 1975 he led an operation that resulted in twelve employees at the Bricklayers’ Arms depot being charged with conspiracy to steal. They were said to have carried out a ‘relabelling operation’, changing the addresses on parcels and then selling the contents. Again, there were complaints that his squad had forced confessions. A BTP Journal article in autumn 1977, probably written by Ridgewell himself, noted that the shift the men worked on

was a mixed one of Nigerians and Turks. Normally the two minority groups operate a strict race barrier between themselves, but these worked closely together. DS Ridgewell shrewdly reasoned that it was a common criminal purpose rather than the pious hopes of the Race Relations Board that caused them to overcome their prejudices.

On 5 April 1977 eight depot employees were convicted after a trial at the Old Bailey, receiving nine-month custodial sentences.

A year later, in May 1978, Ridgewell was himself arrested after a tip-off: he had fallen out with one of the men who helped him sell on the items that he had stolen, using the same method the workers at the Bricklayers’ Arms had supposedly employed. On 22 January 1980 the officers who had prosecuted the depot workers – Ridgewell, DC Douglas Ellis and DC Alan Keeling – were sentenced at the Old Bailey for conspiracy to steal goods valued at £364,000, about sixty van-loads of parcels. Ridgewell kept the proceeds in five bank accounts, including one in Zurich. He was sentenced to seven years, Ellis to six years and Keeling to two years. The recorder of London, James Miskin, berated Ridgewell and Ellis: ‘Without any excuse or explanation, you helped others ship out of this depot Lord knows how much stolen property, and I shall never know where it went or who got what from the proceeds.’

After his conviction, there was no investigation into Ridgewell’s other cases. This seems extraordinary, but one explanation is that the prosecution of Ridgewell was led by his old colleague Maurice Woodman, who had become head of CID; another is that Ridgewell may have been a freemason. Two years into his prison sentence, he died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of 37.

In 2013, Simmons was listening to a legal advice programme on LBC and decided to phone in and get some advice about whether he might be able to overturn his conviction. The barrister on the show, Daniel Barnett, told him to google his arresting officer. He did, and was ‘gobsmacked’, as he told Duncan Campbell, to discover that Ridgewell had been convicted of a very similar offence. He instructed an appeal lawyer, and the CCRC referred his case to the Court of Appeal, which overturned his conviction in 2018. After that, some of the men involved in the cases Hall identified in Policing the Crisis also applied to the CCRC.

One of the things Simmons had found when he googled Ridgewell was a book written in 2010 by Winston Trew of the Oval Four. Black for a Cause describes Trew’s involvement in the Black Power movement and his discoveries about Ridgewell. Trew’s conviction, along with two more of the Oval Four, was overturned in December 2019 (the last man followed a few months later). On 6 July 2021, after the quashing of the conviction of three of the Stockwell Six (a fourth was subsequently cleared), the BTP’s deputy chief constable, Adrian Hanstock, released a statement:

It is wholly regrettable that the criminal actions of a discredited former officer of this force over four decades ago led to these unsound prosecutions.

I apologise unreservedly for the distress, anxiety and impact this will have undoubtedly caused those who were wrongly convicted. We understand that nothing can ever make up for the period of time that they spent in custody or the longer-term effect it may have had on them.

We have examined all available records which suggest that Ridgewell was the principal officer in other investigations and have not identified any additional matters that we feel should be referred for external review.

It’s deeply peculiar that the BTP didn’t think the case of the men who worked at the Bricklayers’ Arms depot came into this category. The CCRC has only managed to track down the families of two of them, Basil Peterkin and Saliah Mehmet. Their convictions were quashed on 18 January this year. Both were posthumous pardons: Peterkin died in 1991; Mehmet in 2021. In his first appeal, which took place in 1978, Peterkin described Ridgewell’s method:

the railway police searched my house on 16 November 1975 and found nothing. They arrested seven of my workmates on my shift on the same night and charged them. Then Wednesday night they asked me to come into their office, searched me and alleged to have found two labels on me. I did not have those labels on me. The only explanation I can give is that either the police put it there or a member of staff put it in my jacket while it was hanging in the cloakroom. If I was guilty of conspiracy to steal with these men, why would I be walking round with incriminating evidence on me at work just three days after they had been arrested and my house searched?

Mehmet had been a police officer in Cyprus; he came to England with his wife to escape the unrest at the time of the partition of the island. He got a job as a porter at the Bricklayers’ Arms depot, where he worked for eight years. He had limited English, and was just the sort of vulnerable defendant Ridgewell preyed on. His conviction left his wife and son homeless. His son said after the Appeal Court hearing that a review of Ridgewell’s cases in 1980 would have given his father ‘his life back’.

The families of Mehmet and Peterkin are campaigning with the support of the legal charity Appeal, where I work, to reform the law so that when an officer is imprisoned there is an automatic review of their case files. This would remove the responsibility from victims like Winston Trew, who spent so long trying to have his conviction overturned, starting in 1980 when he saw a news story about Ridgewell’s conviction. Ridgewell, he wrote after his final victory, ‘had wilfully and maliciously stolen nearly fifty years of my life, and I’ll never get them back’.

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