The Snow In The Summer or So-So

The Snow In The Summer or So-So

Thu 09 Mar 2006

Cops and rubbers

A special edition of Panorama last night investigated the killing of Sr Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell on 22 July last year. It became clear that this was both a failure of intelligence, and a failure of planning.

To put it bluntly, the intelligence available on the day was hopeless. Sr de Menezes was coming out of a block of flats. The policeman outside the house was taking a leak, and hadn't left his video camera running. No-one bothered to challenge Sr de Menezes during his journey, even when he got off and back on a bus at Brixton. And it's still unclear why he was shot in public rather than restrained in a more sane fashion.

It's worth noting that the Israeli police, from whom London's police are presumed to have learned lessons, will not even think about shooting anyone until they see the bomb. This did not happen at Stockwell.

But this was also a failure of planning. London police had only considered a surprise action, spotting a suicide bomber in the process of carrying out the attack. They hadn't seriously given weight to a pursuit, or any intelligence matters.

The Association of Chief Police Officers, quite bizarrely, have said that shoot-to-kill remains the right policy. That may be the case, but it is predicated on a perfectly functioning police force. The experience of last July shows that the police are perfectly capable of botching the operation, for they assume too much.

They *assumed* that Sr de Menezes was one of the suspects from the previous day's woeful attempts to send a second bombing wave. They *assumed* that a potential bomber would be carrying another bomb about his person. They *assumed* that the bomb supposedly carried was effective. They *assumed* that it would be better to kill - sorry, "shoot to incapacitate" - than to risk setting off a bomb.

Hindsight is perfect vision, but I can't share any of these postulates. Not leaving the video camera running just in case was a foolish thing to do, but I cannot pin the entire blame on someone answering the call of nature.

Sr de Menezes was carrying no bag, which instantly meant he wasn't following the modus operandi of the eight previous bomb attempts. Not getting close enough to see - or even to suspect - the presence of a bomb worn around the waist was another failure.

The previous day's attacks had been complete failures, the bombs hadn't gone off. While this doesn't entirely rule out the prospect of a successful bomb, the notion that this device might be less useful than a chocolate teapot never entered the police's minds.

It's clear that someone, somewhere, has committed a gross error of judgement. The question that needs to be answered: who took the decision to open fire. If it was Cressida Dick, the designated officer in charge, then she must be tried for her actions. If it was someone lower down the chain, then they must also have their day in court. To have no prosecution in this case would damage public confidence. If there's no prosecution and no public inquiry into the shoot-to-kill policy, then it'll be compounding tragedy upon tragedy.

Let us mention, but not dwell upon, the police's attempts to cover their tracks by altering the official record. The person responsible has lost any level of trust and needs to be fired, no further questions.

Earlier this week, I was listening to an old Random Edition, where Peter Snow reads an old newspaper and explores the society of the time. This one was from 1875, and talked about a snowball fight between the students at St-bartholomew's Hospital and the police. One commentator suggested that this was a social war by proxy; the students at Bart's would have been upper-class, the police were lower-class, and there was some resentment about the aristocracy being bossed about by common oiks.

How times have changed. Now it's the police that are the untouchable, self-accountable people, sucked up to by every politician going, put on a pedestal as if they can do no wrong.

posted 09 Mar 2006, 19.36 +0000

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