Are you feeling lucky Jean Charles?
Being white, middle class and from a respectable family, whatever that may mean, I grew up with a middle class relationship with the British police: I didn’t trouble them and they didn’t trouble me. The bobby walked the streets, normally alone and always unarmed, cheerfully providing directions to a particular street or local landmark when asked and one never felt remotely threatened.
No longer. Anyone who has been to a British airport in the last few years will have seen the police, always in pairs, patrolling with their automatic weapons. Some of them look about eighteen. And now they have acted. Last Friday a man from a suspect residence and wearing an unseasonably bulky jacket on a warm day – there was no more than that to arouse suspicion – was allowed to board a bus, apparently in the hope he would lead the police to others, but was challenged as soon as he transferred to the tube. When he fled in alarm, tripped and fell, he was shot an incredible five times in the head by a ‘marksman’ at very short range.
The policy that is claimed to justify this summary justice goes under the infantile title of ‘shoot to kill to protect’. It has been adopted by the Metropolitan Police on Israeli advice, not exactly the role model one might hope for, and is presumably endorsed by the Home Office. The head of the Met, who goes by the unfortunate name of Blair, has defended his officers as might a football manager praising a team still only three-nil down at half time against opponents from a higher league. ‘They are playing out of their socks’ he said and went on to warn that since the policy will not change further ‘regrettable’ mistakes could not be ruled out. In this at least he is right. It is a prediction firmly in the category of the bleeding obvious. To suggest, if this policy is to be continued, that Signor de Menezes’s death will be an isolated case would be like saying it will not rain in Manchester for a year or no pigeon will crap on Nelson’s statue before the Olympics get under way.
‘Shoot to kill to protect’ recognises the danger posed by a human bomb and the difficulty of stopping such a person from detonating it other than by total, instantaneous disablement. This means shooting the suspect in the head (ideally severing the spinal cord with the first shot). So what if Signor de Menezes had stopped when challenged? What would have convinced the police that he posed no threat? If a man who is still alive might somehow be able to set off his bomb despite being under arrest and no doubt manacled how is he to be dealt with, searched, taken to a safe place and the bomb, if any, made harmless? Would he be granted his death wish via one of those controlled explosions that seem to be needed in such numbers on these occasions?
I cannot help wondering how the rules of engagement for this policy were drawn up. Is the high command of the Met in a state of panic? Is it the puppet of a Home Office that has never been more draconian and uncaring of the normal democratic niceties? Are the officers who were instructed in the policy so in awe of their superiors that they dared not ask any questions from the point of view of those who would have to apply it, are they so gung-ho they welcomed the freedom of action it gives them or are they so supremely confident of their abilities and the training they have been given that they were unconcerned at taking on the ghastly responsibilities the policy imposes on them? How are the members of the armed units chosen? Are there any psychological or temperamental bars to membership? It is disturbing that more armed officers are now being deployed with authority to shoot in a unit that, in mostly less tense situations, already has a poor history for its decision making.
On Monday it was revealed at the inquest that Signor de Menezes had been shot not five times, but eight, seven times in the head and once in the shoulder. Whether one gun or more was used has not been revealed, though eye-witness accounts have suggested only one. One of the officers involved has been sent on holiday at public expense. He deserves it, for I do not primarily blame the officers at the fatal end of the decision making chain. It has transpired that the squad that was following Signor de Menezes made more than one radio call to a higher command for instructions. It was when the suspect entered the tube station that the authority to shoot to kill was given. Did the officer not already have that authority? If so, why was confirmation needed? If not, what was he supposed to do if a critical situation arose in which he had no time to seek it? So we have the classic situation of action being ordered by someone who was not present to assess the situation at the front, the same process that led to the charge of the Light Brigade. Is this the sort of ‘protection’ we want as we try to go about our normal business in our capital city? It will be interesting to see how this split responsibility will be resolved in the inquiry that is to follow.
As the Duke of Wellington supposedly said of his own troops, ‘I don’t know what effect they have on the enemy, but by God they frighten me’.