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De Menezes: was it Policy pulled the Trigger?

Home » Blog » Posts » De Menezes: was it Policy pulled the Trigger?

It beggars belief. It really does. On 22 July 2005 one policeman holds an innocent man down while two others execute him. A total of 11 shots are fired – 7 into his head. The bullets used are ‘dum-dums’– illegal in warfare under the Geneva Conventions – with flattened noses so they cause maximum damage. The man’s head is effectively blown apart. The execution takes place in full view of the passengers of a tube train.

No one is tried for this MURDER – because that’s what it was.

In this country: England, the ‘mother of democracy’, with one of the most respected justice systems in the world…?

For all the subsequent revelations about his drug use and migrant status, in this context Jean Charles de Menezes was innocent; he was not doing anything to indicate he was about to commit an offence of any description. The police officers had decided he was a suspected suicide bomber and respresented an immediate threat to the public.  So they deliberately killed him without warning.

Whatever happened to that centuries-old axiom of English law that a man (or woman) is innocent until proven guilty?

Last week’s Old Bailey ruling that the Metropolitan Police were guilty under Health & Safety law of very serious operational/procedural failings which put the public (and de Menezes) at risk is a relative side show to the decision made in July 2006 by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). On the basis of a 2-part investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), they took the decision not to prosecute either any of the officers directly involved in the muder or any in the chain in command – policy-making or operational – whose decisions led to the murder.

As London mayor Ken Livingstone said after the Old Bailey decision: “At the end of the day mistakes are always going to happen in situations like this.”

Few procedures are perfect and the human beings who operate the procedures certainly aren’t! Unfortunately it was a particularly bad series of errors at nearly every level of communication which led to the officers putting their guns to de Menezes’ head and pulling the triggers. Believing they were chasing a suspected suicide bomber – in the bowels of Stockwell Station, cut off temporarily from their colleagues – they would almost  certainly have been driven by the RED vMEME’s gung-ho express self now without thought of consequences motif. As they were most likely the kind of ‘action men’ who volunteer for that type of firearms duty, it is quite plausible that they were high in the impulsiveness and compulsiveness of the temperamental dimension of Psychoticism.

Given these factors and the overall desperate mentality of the Metropolitan Police in their search for the failed suicide bombers of the day before, in the wake of the very real attrocities of 7 July, it is not entirely surprising that something like de Menezes’ execution occurred.

The failings of the Met put those officers and de Menezes on that fatal collision course. From a 2nd Tier ‘Big Picture’ point of view, it is entirely right that the Met’s failings in this respect have been exposed so that there is substantial pressure on them to improve the procedures, the communication systems and the training of the men and women who have to operate them.

But, how ever much the operational aspects need to be improved, are they the real issue?

2 days after de Menezes’ murder Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick told community leaders in Stockwell he could not guarantee a similar error would not happen again. The reason such a guarantee could not be made…? As Met supremo Sir Ian Blair told Muslim community leaders the following day, the force’s shoot-to-kill policy for suicide bombers was to remain in place.

Changing precedent?
The question for me is whether the officers who executed de Menezes were acting on their own initiative, on orders or on policy.

If they can be said to have acted on their own initiative, then are they culpable?

Although some commentators have recognised the implications almost from the immediate aftermath of the Stockwell tube murder, it has not been widely discussed in the media; but the 2006 decision of the CPS not to prosecute, if not challenged, may change one of the fundamentals of English law by precedent.

It would appear that, if police officers have a suspicion that someone is a dangerous and/or violent suspect (the police had apparently mistaken de Menezes for Hussain Osman, one of the 21 July would-be suicide bombers) and they think that person represents an immediate and serious danger to themselves or to others, they may now kill that person legitimately.

The next time a police officer kills an innocent person they think may be an immediate and dangerous threat, in their defence, will they be able to cite the de Menezes killing as precedent?

The de Menezes family have been threatening a private criminal prosecution against the Metropolitan Police for some time; the Old Bailey decision opens the way for them to sue the Met under civil law. It is to be hoped the family do choose the more arduous route of criminal prosecution because the issue of whether police officers as individuals do have the right to summarily execute a suspect needs testing in full court proceedings.

Because if a police officer does have the right to kill someone on the grounds that they might be dangerous, does a suspect, in the established right of self-defence, have legitimate cause to kill a police officer they think might be about to kill them?

If we generalise that line of thought, don’t we all have the right to kill someone – anyone! – we think may be about to harm us? In which case, shouldn’t we be allowed to carry weapons to defend ourselves against people we think may be about to harm us?

If our society should eventually descend into a widespread state of paranoia, where we kill each other merely on suspicion something might be done to harm us, then our society will have failed and the terrorists will have won.

Further comments made by Ken Livingstone on the Old Bailey verdict are very telling…

“I think this is disastrous. If an armed police officer believes they are in pursuit of a terrorist who might be a suicide bomber, and they start making reasonable calculations based on this, ‘how’s this going to be seen, am I going to be hauled off to court?'”

For Livingstone, it would indeed appear that ‘might be’ is sufficient grounds for summary execution of a suspect.

Policy more than procedure
The Old Bailey trial was largely concerned with errors in operational procedure – of which clearly there were many. Since the Met’s failings put those officers in the invidious position of being face to face alone with a man they believed was most likely a suicide bomber and able to detonate himself, for all that de Menezes was murdered, it might be that the right charge to be brought against the officers individually and certainly against the Met as a corporation is manslaughter. After all, no one intended that an innocent man called Jean Charles de Menezes should die on that day. So what to do? The police and the government have a duty to protect the citizenry from harm – and some would argue: even if that means occasionally executing the wrong person. (Some apologists make a similar case for the death sentence.)

Undoubtedly the officers who killed de Menezes did so on their own initiative; but there was confusion as to just what their orders were and the information they had been given. Certainly they did not intend to kill an innocent man; but, in the ‘adrenaline rush’ of the moment, they certainly did intend to kill the man they suspected of being a suicide bomber.

So, in its bunglings, the Met, as a corporation, is culpable also.

However, I would contend that the real issue is at policy level: should the police have the right to execute someone merely on the suspicion they might be about to commit a highly-dangerous offence?

Of course, armed police officers and their commanders sometimes do have to take difficult decisions very, very quickly – sometimes virtually at the level of automatic response! – and tragically they do sometimes make the wrong decision. The fatal shootings of Harry Stanley in 1999 (when in semi-darkness police mistook the chair leg in his hand for a shot gun) and Derek Bennett in 2001 (wielding a cigarette lighter that was a convincing replica of an automatic pistol) are examples of such desperate mistakes. But in such cases the person was acting in an aggressive manner, warnings were given and the officers had tangible evidence on which to base the assumption that they and others were at serious and immediate risk. The policy in such instances was essentially correct and the procedures were examined by the IPCC to see if they could be improved.

Unfortunately the rise of the suicide bomber puts police officers in the position where the evidence of intent to commit a highly-dangerous act is not always tangible – and that puts us as a society in the position where we have to decide whether we are going to authorise our police to execute suspects with no tangible evidence of intent. Ie: on mere suspicion.

Metropolitan Police policy in regard to dealing with suspected suicide bombers is codenamed Operation Kratos and is in part at least derived from Israeli and Sri-Lankan tactics in dealing with suicide bombers. The policy of shooting in the head with a highly-destructive dum-dum round comes from the determination to destroy the suspected suicide bomber before they can detonate the explosives they are thought to be carrying. Shooting to the head rather than the usual police marksman’s target of the upper torso is not only so much more likely to result in instant incapacitation and very likely a quick death but avoids the risk of the bullets hitting the explosives belt (usually worn across the torso) and unintentionally triggering the explosion.

But there is a fundamental difference between the Israeli and Sri-Lankan situations and that of the British.

Israel and Sri-Lanka are effectively engaged in low-level wars with terrorists from different ethnic groups than their majority populations. While there undoubtedly is a significant GREEN voice in Israel that objects vociferously to such policies, the PURPLE/BLUE religious/nationalist harmonic which dominates much of Israeli national culture doesn’t place the same value on a Palestinian life as an Israeli one. Thus, if an Israeli policeman makes a mistake and shoots dead an innocent Palestinian on suspicion they might be a suicide bomber, it’s not much of an issue. For many Israelis, the occasional mistaken execution of an innocent Palestinian is a price well worth paying to stop the suicide bombers.

And, as the Sri-Lankan government has been getting away with some pretty brutal oppression of its ethnic-Indian Tamil population for at least a couple of decades, it’s probably safe to assume that many Sri-Lankans don’t overly value Tamil lives either.

(In both cases the PURPLE-BLUE devaluing of the other side’s lives also strongly influences the actions of Palestinian and Tamil extremists.)

In multi-ethnic Britain, where GREEN’s egalitarianism and valuing of all life influence much political thought and social commentary and where the threat of suicide bombers comes from within our own citizenry, executing citizens on mere suspicion of intent gives the police and the government a huge problem.

A highly-significant number of people in this country, most of the intelligensia and the greater part of the media consider what happened to Jean Charles de Menezes simply unnacceptable in a ‘decent society’.

The IPCC report on the de Menezes execution, released this week, makes it clear that Kratos was not formally sanctioned on 22 July but expresses concerns that its ethos of shoot-to-kill-suspected-suicide-bombers has permeated the culture amongst Met firearms officers. As IPCC commissioner Deborah Glass said at the report’s launch: “The difficulty with having an operation called Kratos that is specifically about suicide bombers is that there is an implicit assumption that you are going to be always dealing with suicide bombers,” she says. “You are giving it a level of certainty that does not appear in real life. So the problem can well be that if you create a mindset in firearms officers that you are dealing with a suicide bomber then the concerns commanders would have about what is the level of the threat may well be overtaken.”

So we can conclude de Menezes was killed by a combination of adrenaline-rushed officers, misinformed and badly let down by bureaucratic bungling, all operating with a policy-bred-but-undiscriminating maximum lethal force ethos.

A 2nd Tier solution?
And it could be argued that, while GREEN would be totally against allowing legitimate execution on mere suspicion of intent on the grounds that all life is precious and a few cannot be sacrificed for the many, true 2nd Tier thinking would sanction it as a lesser evil than letting the suicide bombers wreak their carnage. From the little known about it, it is claimed that the TURQUOISE vMEME is indeed prepared to sacrifice parts of the whole for the overall good of the whole.

However, TURQUOISE will also know that the agents of the law taking the law into their own hands and engaging in summary executions, whatever the immediate justification, can only work as a very short-term measure in a democratic society supposedly based on the rule of law . If widespread respect and support for the law is undermined and BLUE fails at a macro-cultural level, then, in a cultural jungle, RED will indeed assert itself. Then we do risk the nightmare scenario of police officers and ordinary members of the public trying to kill each other on the mere suspicion that the other intends them lethal harm.

Small wonder IPCC chair Nick Hardwick has called for a public debate on the shoot-to-kill policy and the very real difficulties facing the police in combatting terrorism.

Clearly there are no easy answers. The terrorists would indeed appear to have us in a dilemma of moral ambiguity.

But what about YELLOW? We know a fair amount about YELLOW thinking, thanks to the work of psychologists like Clare W Graves and Abraham Maslow (who termed the effects of this vMEME ‘Self-Actualisation’, 1943). One of the characteristics both men attributed to this level was its incredible problem-solving capabilities – 4 times greater than GREEN, according to Graves (1971/2002).

So, if the suicide bombers really do leave us with no option other than to incapacitate through execution on the mere suspicion of intent but that option is unacceptable in our kind of society, we need to get YELLOW problem-solving to work on changing some part of this paradoxical equation.

One possible avenue YELLOW might pursue is the manner in which West Midlands Police arrested another of the 21 July would-be suicide bombers, Yasin Hassan Omar, just 5 days after de Menezes’ execution, using a Taser stun gun. While Sir Ian Blair publicly criticised the use of a Taser as there was a risk the electric charge could have detonated any explosives on Omar’s person, the fact West Midlands incapacitated their suspect without lethal force does suggest their methodology should be studied.

Clearly, when his own force had made such an appalling mistake, it suited Blair to rubbish the other force’s achievement – and it may indeed turn out that West Midlands took an absurdly-silly risk and were astonishingly lucky to pull off their coup. Nonetheless, at a time when we are putting innocent lives at risk in our efforts to combat the terrorists, it behoves us to study any possible means of incapacitating a suspected suicide bomber that doesn’t cause that person serious harm. 

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  1. Keith E Rice says

    It's deeply disappointing that today's decision by the European Court of Human Rights effectively ends the de Menezes family's campaign for justice.

    Because there was "not sufficient evidence" for prosecution of an individual, no Metropolitan Police officers will be prosecuted. Not the officers who executed de Menezes. Not Cressida Dick the 'Gold Commander' supervising those officers who reputedly gave the order to use 'lethal force' - though she has repeatedly denied she gave such explicit instructions.

    Dick was rewarded by the Met for her murderous or incompetent decision - take your choice! - and promoted to Assistant Commissioner in 2009. She was reported by the Daily Mail to have taken an undisclosed role at the Foreign Office in 2014.

    So it's official. Police officers can murder innocent civilians and get away with it simply because they *believe*.

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