The Stockwell shooting and the police: mistrust the rush to judgement
Despite the understandable public concern over the tragic death of a young Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, victim of mistaken identity, at the hands of the Metropolitan (London) Police at London’s Stockwell tube station on 22 July, the day after the second (abortive) attempted bombings in London, it seems clear that there are no grounds whatever as of now for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, to be called on to resign. Even his most hysterical current critics can hardly believe, or claim, that his remarks immediately after the shooting were knowingly untrue or deliberately intended to deceive. Only one point in his statement then is now seen to be probably (but not yet certainly) wrong: the statement that Mr Menezes had been challenged by the police and had failed to obey their instructions. And until we see the report of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) inquiry, we shan’t know for sure that this actually was wrong. Other details in the first media reports that were later contradicted by the document mysteriously leaked to a commercial television news channel were not given out by the Commissioner, who has denied that they were officially released by the police at all. Presumably they were pieced together by the media in the first confused hours and days from assertions by people claiming to have been eye-witnesses: for example, at least one ‘witness’ claimed that he had seen Menezes wearing a heavy belt from which electric wires were dangling. There seems to be no evidence so far that any of these early reports were derived from informal off-the-record briefings by police officers, and until such evidence materialises, it is obviously quite wrong to accuse the police, still less Ian Blair personally, of having deliberately or negligently issued false information soon after the shooting.
Those who have rushed to judgement against the Commissioner and the policemen involved in this desperately sad affair perhaps need to be reminded that:
1. The alternative version of events in the leaked document is only one person’s account: we don’t yet know what other witnesses have said or will say. Why should this one account be accepted as gospel? Why was this particular version leaked, if not as part of an anti-police agenda? Was this one witness necessarily in a position to be sure that the suspect wasn’t challenged at any point? Eye-witness accounts of dramatic and fast-moving events notoriously vary widely from witness to witness, even when one or more of the witnesses is a policeman.
2. Much has been made of the conflict between, on the one hand, media stories (however sourced) according to which Menezes was wearing a heavy padded jacket, and, on the other hand, the truth (as demonstrated by the leaked photograph of his body) that he was actually wearing an unpadded denim jacket. But the difference is essentially immaterial: he could have been concealing explosives under a denim jacket as well as under a padded coat. Wearing any kind of jacket on such a hot day could have seemed to tend to confirm police suspicions that he was one of the four failed bombers, when taken together with the other pointers (the building he came out of, his remarkable likeness to one of the 21 July suspects, making for the tube station, running onto the train, etc.), even if these have subsequently turned out to have innocent explanations or to have been of no significance.
3. It is extremely difficult to see what possible alternative there can be to the so-called ’shoot to kill’ policy as applied to suspected suicide bombers. If there are real grounds for believing that a person may be about to blow up a group of innocent civilians (as well as him- or herself) by pressing a button on a bomb-belt concealed under outer clothing, even an attempt to pinion the suspect — as one of the policemen apparently did, according to his leaked account — risks setting off the explosion: and shooting at any part of the suspect lower than his/her head carries a wholly unacceptable risk of either detonating the explosives by impact of the bullet, or leaving the suspect wounded but not dead and therefore able immediately to press the fatal button. The inescapable logic is that in such a situation a shot or shots to the head must be the only sure way to pre-empt the explosion. The policy setting this out has apparently been approved at high political level and by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). It is an operational matter which, contrary to much media and blog comment, cannot and should not be determined by public opinion as expressed in the letters columns of the heavies or the populist editorials of the Sun. Such policies must be for professional decision, subject to political approval, not for decision by opinion poll. ACPO confirms that it is reviewing the policy in the light of the Stockwell tragedy, but clearly without much confidence that any better policy can be devised.
4. Ian Blair was well within his rights in initially resisting the transfer of the investigation from the police to the IPCC, and he has in no way sought to “cover up” the fact that he did so (as he has said, writing a letter to the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office and copying it to the Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the body that monitors and supervises the Metropolitan Police, and the Chairman of the IPCC would be a very odd way to cover anything up). At a time when it still seemed perfectly possible that the dead man had in fact been involved in terrorism, with the police investigation of the bomb attempts of 21 July at its peak of activity, and the imperative need to maintain the complete secrecy of how that investigation was proceeding and what leads it was pursuing, Ian Blair was arguably perfectly justified in resisting an immediate transfer of this important part of the investigation to an outside body whose own enquiries were bound to distract the anti-terrorism police from their primary task (catching the 21 July failed bombers and pre-empting a further terrorist attack). Moreover he apparently didn’t trust the IPCC to maintain proper security in handling such highly sensitive information, and the prompt (and disastrous) leak of a key document and photograph, apparently by a member of the IPCC staff, seems to indicate that his lack of trust could prove to have been well founded.
5. We need to be seriously concerned about the implications of this shrill and premature campaign against the Metropolitan Police and its chief for the morale of the police involved in combating terrorism, and in particular for the readiness of an armed policeman to shoot on a future occasion when that might be the only way to prevent a further terrorist attack involving numerous civilian deaths. To act in that way demands real courage: it involves getting very close to someone who you reasonably believe may be about to kill you, and who is quite likely to do so before you can stop him (or her). It involves accepting the real risk that if your suspicions turn out to be mistaken, you might end up on a murder charge — or at best as the object of popular vilification. The current campaign has hugely aggravated those risks. It must have made it extremely unlikely that any individual policeman would take such risks in the future. If similar circumstances occur again, and if next time the suspect really is a bomber, I just hope that I’m not one of the passengers on the train.
Sir Ian Blair
The Guardian editorial of 20 August 2005 has got it right (apart from an unbalanced headline). We ask an awful lot of our policemen, and none of us has the right to condemn them out of hand long before we know the full facts or the results of the official independent inquiry. If anyone has the right to the benefit of the doubt until the facts are known, it’s surely the policeman entrusted by our society with both a gun and the awesome responsibility of having to decide in a split second whether to use it.
(In case you have a feeling of déjà vu when reading this, you could be right: most of it was originally posted as a comment on an item about the Stockwell shooting on Owen Barder’s blog. I have transferred it here in agreement with him, with a trackback to his post.)