The real Life on Mars squad: Six officers guilty of gross misconduct

The real Life on Mars squad: Six police officers guilty of gross misconduct joked about migrants drowning, used a lewd video to taunt a black colleague and spouted vile homophobic abuse

  • Misconduct hearing told unit was ‘ableist, sexist, racist, trans and homophobic’
  • The six officers will be able to appeal decisions handed down at hearing Friday
  • If unsuccessful, sanctions which may include dismissal will be given next month 

During their decades of police service, the Basingstoke Six must have heard every excuse in the book from the many criminals they collared.

So when they found themselves standing in the dock, so to speak, and asked to account for behaviour that was racist, sexist and homophobic, the expectations for their explanations were set quite high. Sadly, to a man, they disappointed.

PC Craig Bannerman, for example, was accused of failing to challenge colleagues when they made foul and degrading references to women. The reason? A hearing problem which the officer claimed meant he must have missed the offensive slurs being bandied about. Then there was PC James Oldfield, who spoke about ‘mongs’, ‘bummers’ and ‘sluts’ – and even joked about migrants having a long swim and drowning in the sea.

He explained that he had a split personality – James, who ‘got on with work and was professional’ and Jim who was a ‘complete animal’.

On another occasion he – James or Jim, it’s not clear which – was accused of turning up drunk at work and joking that he would be fine ‘as long as I don’t have to go near a f****** victim … cos there might be more victims … if I breathe on someone’. 

It all makes the 2006 BBC One drama Life on Mars – about a modern-day GMP officer transported to a 1973 pre-political correctness police unit led by thuggish DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) – look tame in comparison.

A third officer, trainee Detective Constable Andrew Ferguson, said he had not blown the whistle about racist comments because his boss and his dad, a retired policeman, were mates who used ‘to go on walking holidays together’ and he didn’t want to spoil their friendship.

Quite what his father would have made of a mocked-up snap he shared to their WhatsApp group that showed The Duke of Sussex and the Duchess of Cambridge engaged in a sex act, one can only imagine.

Pictured: The cast of BBC’s ‘Life on Mars’ which depicts a Greater Manchester Police department in 1973, where the characters are racist, sexist and homophobic

And let’s not forget DS Gregory Willcox. While his old friend DI Tim Ireson was in charge of the special crimes unit, it was he who was said to actually run the show.

He explained he could see nothing wrong with the fact that the part of the office where the only two officers of African origin happened to sit had been named ‘African Corner’.

‘I thought it was a positive thing,’ he insisted. ‘They would bring food in to try and share their culture with the team.’ That Willcox was keen on team bonding there can be no doubt – and not just in the office.

During a disciplinary hearing it emerged that over a seven-month period a quarter of the emails he sent from his work account were to do with a local youth football team he ran. Most were sent while on duty. Hundreds more messages were sent on his work phone.

Wasn’t it the case that time wasted on his hobby would have been better spent supervising his dysfunctional unit, he was asked? Not at all, came Willcox’s reply, ignoring the fact that on one occasion when PC Oldfield was busy suggesting they ‘shoot’ Albanian criminals, he was bashing out an email about poor pitch conditions.

At least he was there on that occasion. Willcox was also accused of spending three-and-a-half hours attending a Driver Awareness Course for speeding – only to then claim those hours as work.

While the six admitted misconduct, all denied that their behaviour constituted gross misconduct. Yesterday a hearing brought by the Chief Constable of Hampshire Police found against them.

It was in 2017 that the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd opened the Northern Hampshire Police Investigation Centre in Basingstoke.

‘By having modern facilities in the right locations means more officers’ time is spent where it matters most – on the frontline, doing vital work to reduce crime in our communities,’ she said. Nice words, shame about the reality. Because among those based in the building was the northern division of the force’s Serious Organised Crime Unit, known as SOCU(N). Its focus was offences such as armed robbery, drug manufacture and supply, firearms and high-value burglary. Detective Inspector Tim Ireson was in charge of the unit. The 55-year-old, who had decades of experience, had taken over in April 2016.

Willcox was his putative deputy. Like Ireson, he had joined the force in 1993 and had been a detective for more than 20 years. He moved to SOCU(N) in 2015. The pair had been friends for years, something that a female officer observed ‘blurred the boundaries between Sergeant and Inspector’.

What is clear is that under their leadership, ‘a toxic, abhorrent, culture’ had developed in the unit. One woman worker described it as a ‘lad’s pad’ that was ‘stuck in a time from 25 years ago’ where every second word was a swear-word and where minorities were fair game.

Following an anonymous complaint, an internal police probe was launched, with a bug planted in the office to record conversations between March and April 2018.

Emails, texts and messages to a WhatsApp group named ‘SOCU’ were also retrieved and studied.

Pictured: Retired DI Tim Ireson, the inspector in charge of a unit which faces serious misconduct allegations. Ireson was in charge of the unit. The 55-year-old, who had decades of experience, had taken over in April 2016

The haul of information led to serious misconduct proceedings being brought by Hampshire Police against six members of the team –Ireson, Willcox, Bannerman, Oldfield, Ferguson and Detective Sergeant Oliver Lage.

‘It was firstly a unit that referred to women as whores, sweetheart, sugar t**s and Dorris,’ said Jason Beer QC, opening the hearing in October at Hampshire Police HQ.

Officers, he continued, would ‘ponder’ whether female staff speaking over the tannoy were ‘getting any sex’. Another officer’s partner was described as an ‘absolute whore who is definitely getting banged’.

The unit was also ‘racist’, directing comments towards the one black officer in the team, DC Solomon Koranteng.

‘A black officer was referred to as a pavement special, ie a mixed-breed dog,’ Mr Beer added.

‘He was accused of behaving as a colonial overseer running a plantation of white people … of being flown to England from Africa in a crate having been stolen and then taken to London Zoo… all the while as a song is sung to the tune of Buffalo Soldier with the words ‘stolen from Africa, brought to America’ substituted with ‘stolen from Africa, taken to Lincoln’; the same black officer is said to like eating corn and coconuts.’

Homophobic and transphobic attitudes were also openly displayed, with the word ‘gay’ widely used as a derogatory term.

Which brings us to the specifics of what was said, by whom – and the officers’ risible attempts to excuse their behaviour.

The officers found guilty of gross misconduct are Detective Inspector Timothy Ireson, Detective Sergeant Oliver Lage, Detective Sergeant Gregory Willcox, trainee Detective Constable Andrew Ferguson, PC James Oldfield, and PC Craig Bannerman. Pictured: Hampshire Police and Investigation Centre in Basingstoke 

Bannerman, a South-African father-of four, had joined the unit in 2015. He referred to DC Koranteng as ‘Danny Glover’ – the black American actor – saying he was ‘illegal’. He also called him a ‘pavement special’ which he claimed in South Africa was ‘a humorous, tongue-in-cheek term used to describe someone of mixed heritage’.

In one conversation, the 53-year-old was recorded saying: ‘Yeah but we’re from Africa. We’ll shag anything that moves and if it doesn’t we’ll kick it till it moves.’ On another occasion he goaded a female officer for not looking at an image of an undressed woman on a seized phone, saying ‘will you stop turning your face away it’s just a fanny’. He was also accused of failing to challenge other officers’ inappropriate comments.

His excuse? That his hearing had been damaged while working in South Africa.

‘It was in various gun battles, shooting scenarios – causing damage inside the ear,’ he said. ‘My hearing is muffled, noise without my hearing aids is muffled.’

Bannerman resigned as a police officer before the misconduct proceedings began.

On to Oldfield, who joined the force in 2003, and whose every other word was said to be a swear word. The 38-year-old officer claimed this was in part down to his upbringing in a military household and partly down to his ‘split personality’. ‘A lot of what I say comes out of anger, a lot of what I say is to try and make people laugh,’ he told the hearing.

Which, he said, explained a photoshopped image he posted in May 2018 of the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

The image showed a black man exposing his genitals with a caption referring to DC Koranteng. It read: ‘That’s where Sol was on Saturday’. ‘Sol’s a black man on our team and I’m trying to make a joke out of that, saying that was Sol,’ Oldfield explained. ‘The male is wearing a hat very similar to one that Sol had worn in the office.’

On the same day, Oldfield posted a clip showing a black man having sex with a drunk white woman at a bus stop. The caption read: ‘And that’s where Sol is today.’

The haul of information led to serious misconduct proceedings being brought by Hampshire Police against six members of the team. DS Lage (pictured) said that he could not understand why he did not challenge the ‘folly of dialogue’

Oldfield accepted that it was ‘outrageous’ and that he should not have posted the video.

He was also alleged to have attended work on April 1 2018 while unfit for duty due to excessive alcohol consumption. The previous evening he had met with friends to watch a boxing match on TV, drinking five or six pints of ale and getting home at 2am. Arriving at work the next morning he referred to himself in the third person, saying: ‘James is at home…he’s no c***ing idea what he’s done.’ When his boss raised the possibility of him assisting a fellow officer in a rape investigation he said: ‘I just don’t really want to speak to anyone…I just don’t want anyone to realise that I’m still pissed. (laughter)…well not pissed…did I say that out loud?’

Giving evidence, Oldfield insisted that he wasn’t drunk – but was ‘knackered’.

Ferguson was the newest member of the team, having joined the force in 2009 and the unit in November 2017. It was, he said, his ‘dream job’. His father was a retired detective and a friend of both Ireson and Willcox.

With that background, the father-of-two said he felt ‘conflicted’ when hearing racist remarks and feared he might be ostracised if he complained. Bursting into tears, he said he was ‘sorry for not having the courage’ to report abuse. Or, possibly, sorry that he was found out. Because he too was responsible for a catalogue of derogatory comments about women.

Referring to his wife, he told a colleague that ‘she’ll be coming through the door about one in the morning absolutely battered and I’ll try and get my end away’. Which leaves the three senior officers.

DS Lage had actually left the unit in December 2017 but returned to provide holiday cover on the first weekend that the covert recordings began.

Pictured: Stars of Life on Mars John Simm (L) and Philip Glenister at the Booth Street Film Depot in Stockport

Officers were heard joking about the qualifications of DC Koranteng, a Ghanaian. ‘He has got his from Nigeria,’ Lage said.

In another incident he was present when a tannoy announcement was made which was reacted to by officers shouting “c**t”, “s**t” and “w***e”.

DS Lage said that he could not understand why he did not challenge the ‘folly of dialogue’, adding: ‘It is that I didn’t even register that those words have been said at that time and doesn’t equate in my own mind.’

More serious still however were the failings of Ireson and Willcox, who were accused of presiding over a dysfunctional team and directly failing in their leadership responsibilities.

A number of officers interviewed as part of the investigation blamed Willcox. ‘I didn’t trust Willcox as far as I could throw him,’ one female officer said.

In his evidence, Willcox accepted failures in terms of the leadership he had offered but denied ever ‘intentionally’ claiming for hours that he had not worked.

He also criticised the investigation into the officers – claiming it had ‘lost perspective’.

As for Ireson – the most senior officer in the unit – giving evidence he defended some of his team’s behaviour, claiming that swearing was ‘in the fabric of the force’ and even ‘part of everyday office use’ for them.

DI Ireson clarified: ‘My boundary was I didn’t like the c-word but I used the f-word, that is where I stood.’

Ireson said that at no stage did he believe that DC Koranteng was the victim of bullying.

He added that he was not trying to ‘run a renegade unit’ and said that he and Willcox had a unique idea of comedy.

Sounding more like David Brent, star of hit BBC mockumentary The Office, than a senior police officer, he said: ‘Greg has a sense of humour which you might say gets him into trouble on occasion, as does mine…I thought we were a really good team that operated in a really good way.’

After the investigation was launched and before the proceedings were heard, Ireson retired.

In January, when the tribunal meets again to hand down its sanctions, his colleagues face the prospect of seeing their own careers cut short too. 

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