Andrew Harper, a police constable with Thames Valley police, disappeared from view suddenly, “like a waterskier coming off the rope”, as his partner that night later described it. They had been off duty when a call about three young men stealing a quad bike nearby had come in, but attended anyway. They caught up with the gang, one of whom – in order to make a speedier getaway – was unhooking the bike they had been towing with a car as Harper got out of the police car to try to apprehend him. The thief dived through the gang’s car window and it drove off. The tow rope caught Harper by the feet. He was dragged a mile, and to his death.
Presented by Sir Trevor McDonald in full sonorous voice mode, The Killing of PC Harper: A Widow’s Fight for Justice (ITV) recaps the terrible story, which dominated headlines in 2019.
There is dashcam and helicopter footage aplenty, with the suppressed but growing panic in officers’ voices – as they keep one another informed of the unfolding crime – telling more of the story than their words. Bodycam footage of the three suspects’ arrest shows, from the off, the trio’s irrepressible bravado and lack of compunction, which would later become a feature of the trial – and the media reporting around it. “He’s upsetting me!” one suspect says about the arresting officer. “Because he’s calling me a murderer!”
Another recap of the investigation is followed by an emotional interview with Lissie Harper, PC Harper’s widow, only four-weeks married at the time of her husband’s death.
Calm, poised and articulate while still clearly stricken with grief, she describes the night in awful, measured terms. The knock on the door. The assumption that Andrew had forgotten his keys. Seeing the officer in uniform on the doorstep, “and thinking – well, this isn’t right”. Being told that he had died (“the most alien thing”) and that it hadn’t been, as she had assumed, an accident. “This secondary shock – someone’s taken his life.” Her mother, Julie, recalls watching her collapse afterwards and being powerless to take the pain away. Andrew’s friend Andy Fiddler remembers him as “a big bundle of joy to work with and to know”.
It is often remarked how camera-ready all Americans are, and it does seem that they have a great facility to turn any event, no matter how small or large, into a compelling, accessible verbal account at a moment’s notice. Less talked about is how anyone who is talking about a genuine, deeply felt experience can do the same. Authenticity gives them a particular and unmistakable dignity. No one who hears an account of a shocking bereavement such as Lissie’s (or in other documentaries, people talking about serious illness, sexual assaults, dementia or innumerable other traumas) can remain unmoved or uncompassionate.
One day, documentary producers – and, it must be said, ITV is generally behind the curve compared with the BBC, though the latter is not uniform in its approach either – will realise that this makes any attempt to convey horror elsewhere in the programme look crass and sensationalist. The top of this documentary is full of cliches delivered as if they were the sermon on the mount. There are also problems with Sir Trevor’s attempts to convey what he had been told (“Almost unimaginable … what a horrifying, fateful end to someone’s life”) as if an account of a man being dragged to his death, from one of his colleagues, needed further bolstering.
Beyond that there was the difficulty of the specific point of this programme, which seemed to be to raise the profile of Harper’s Law, for which Lissie has campaigned since the suspects arrested for her husband’s murder were convicted only of manslaughter (they are all likely be released in a decade – when they will still be younger than 28-year-old Andrew was when he died). The new law, to be included in a bill expected to pass in a few months’ time, will make life sentences mandatory for anyone convicted of killing an emergency worker during the commission of a crime. It has been supported by the home secretary, Priti Patel, throughout, which will be a red flag to many, but critics’ objections got only the briefest mention towards the end of the hour. Although it seemed clear that for Lissie the campaign had been a distraction from her grief and its success cathartic (“otherwise it’s just a disgusting waste of an amazing person’s life”), there was certainly nothing even approaching a consideration of whether laws born of emotion are always good laws, or whether a draconian home secretary can sometimes use people’s pain and sympathies to advance her own agenda without having to face as much opposition. But some may wonder.