Missing the mark on the de Menezes shooting
As police are charged with 'health and safety' violations over their killing of the Brazilian, the whole affair becomes increasingly surreal.
The Metropolitan Police will be charged with ‘failing to provide for the heath, safety and welfare of Jean Charles de Menezes’. Well, that’s one way of describing the process of unloading seven rounds into somebody’s head.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) neither charged nor cleared the officers involved in the bungled shooting of the 27-year-old Brazilian at Stockwell station in London on 22 July 2005. Instead it fudged, bringing a case under Sections 3 and 33 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – a piece of law normally invoked for companies that give their staff the wrong safety goggles or allow their chemical pipes to leak.
This judgement satisfies nobody. As Damian Hockney, a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority put it, ‘It will not satisfy those who believe that the police should not be prosecuted and it will look like an insult or a cover-up to those who do’ (1). It does, however, provide a shapshot of the state of the strong arm of the law, and of its critics.
It is striking that the CPS – informed by an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) – couldn’t back the Met for its actions at what was, after all, supposedly a time of war. It was in the fraught circumstances after the attempted 21 July suicide bombings that armed officers were roaming the streets, looking for the suspects who they thought might try again. No firearms officer has ever been convicted for shooting a civilian before; mistakes tended to be either hidden or greeted with homilies about the stresses of the ‘line of duty’. The finding of ‘errors of planning and communication’ puts the Met on the defensive, and gives succour to its critics.
There are a growing number of people calling for the resignation of Sir Ian Blair, Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Such calls will be encouraged by this verdict, in spite of the CPS insistence that ‘this is not a prosecution of Sir Ian Blair in his personal capacity’. Meanwhile, it is likely that the de Menezes family and others will continue to push for conviction of the officers involved. A representative for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) was on the backfoot after the ruling, protesting that the police tactics were ‘proportionate’ to the threat – and saying that he ‘hoped the findings of the IPCC would allow the association to learn lessons and develop tactics further’, as if the officers were struggling students who needed encouragement and feedback rather than blame (2).
Many critics represent the killings as a premeditated assault, as if armed officers picked out de Menezes and killed him for being somehow ‘different’. ‘When did it become illegal in this country to wear a padded coat in summer and look foreign?’, asks one contributor to an Indymedia discussion. Others project their particular concerns on to the case, reading it as a killing motivated by everything from racism to the war in Iraq. Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said that the case ‘shows the level of institutional Islamophobia in Britain today’ – although de Menezes was no more Islamic than Sir Ian Blair himself.
This was not a conspiracy perpetrated by a highly ruthless state force; quite the opposite, in fact. It was, as a timeline in the London Evening Standard on 17 July makes clear, an extraordinary cock-up by a force that was panicky and all over the place. The blunders started with the undercover soldier who, at 9.33am, was relieving himself behind a tree when de Menezes left his block of flats – a block shared by the bomber suspect Hussain Osman. The surveillance officers followed de Menezes but couldn’t decide whether it was Osman or not (the two in fact bear little resemblance to one another); and they apparently didn’t manage to communicate their ‘uncertainty’ back to base. Commander Cressida Dick, the woman in charge of the Met’s firearms units on the day, then ‘becomes convinced’ that they were dealing with Osman and calls in the firearms unit three miles away.
When the armed officers arrived at Stockwell Tube station (late – they got stuck in traffic) they had to search three buses before they realised that the suspect had entered the station. When they entered the station at 10.06am, a surveillance officer, who was sitting near de Menezes on the Tube, shouted ‘he’s here’ and grabbed the Brazilian. To the surveillance officer’s apparent surprise, the armed officers fired 11 shots, seven of which hit the subject (a level of accuracy that would look pretty bad from 50 yards, let alone at point blank range). The whole tragic scenario looks more like a team of amateurs on a tracking exercise than the hardened and highly trained elite of British police.
In the wake of the shootings, some allege that the Met organised a calculated cover-up. Ian Blair is accused of lying about events, giving a positive press briefing on 22 July even while senior officers apparently knew that they had shot the wrong man. Conspiracy or cock-up? I’d go for the latter – with Blair prematurely rushing for the media limelight before dealing properly with the scene on the ground. Then the police officers involved are accused of covering up by changing their logbooks, but the telling fact about this is that they were caught.
Yes, Ian Blair tried to stop the IPCC investigating the case, informing the Home Office just after the shooting that he would deny officials access to the scene at Stockwell. But by 5.11pm that same day, Met officials were worrying that his actions could lead to accusations of a cover-up on the part of ‘key stakeholders and wider communities’ (3).
Every important document relating to the case has leaked like a sieve. The ITV news journalist who captured the scoop of the IPCC documents revealing de Menezes’ innocence first received this information, he says, from his ‘girlfriend, Louise’, who ‘was at a barbecue with a friend who worked for the IPCC’ (4). Meanwhile, the current IPCC report hasn’t yet been published, but has been leaked already to the News of the World.
While the case reveals dislocation in the Met, it also shows a worrying frame of mind among the police’s critics too. A surprising number of people have empathised and found deep meaning in the killing of de Menezes. There is a notion that the killing signals a totalitarian state, in which we could be victims at any moment. At the memorial that grew up at Stockwell Tube station last year, notes read, ‘even the police are starting to shoot us randomly’, ‘They are killing us, brother’, and ‘Another victim of the fascist pig’ (see Memorial to paranoia, by Josie Appleton). De Menezes has become an almost Christ-like figure, a hard-working innocent young man who died to show us British sins (indeed, Bianca Jagger has as usual taken it too far by actually likening his death to that of Jesus’s).
Journalists have gone looking for ‘the real Jean Charles’, detailing his childhood, ambitions and pastimes. His small hilltop hometown of Gonzaga has been staked out by the British media – so it is small wonder that the town now bears a welcome sign at its entrance, reading ‘The land of Jean Charles – a victim of terrorism in London’. An offshoot of all this has been the growing importance of the issue in Brazil, a country not famed for the sensitivity of its police, where figures from the president downwards have raised the issue. At de Menezes’ memorial service in London, attended by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Brazilian chaplain said that de Menezes ‘made us proud to be Brazilian’: ‘If Jean Charles’s tragic death helps us to hear those words, and take them to our hearts, his death will not be in vain but will bear fruits.’ (5)
The health and safety ruling is a bland and neutral judgement, devoid of either individual responsibility or political partisanship. No individuals will be held to account – but police strategies as a whole are not being scrutinised either. The defendant in the case will be the ‘Office of Commissioner, as the deemed employer of the Metropolitan Police officers involved in the death of Mr de Menezes’ – perhaps better described as the empty chair of the Metropolitan Police. It’s unlikely that Ian Blair himself will end up in court; the ‘Office of Commissioner’ could be represented by a Met lawyer instead.
These are strange and unpredictable times, with suicide bombers whose bombs fail to go off; police officers who can’t handle a gun; health and safety legislation invoked to deal with the actions of trained marksmen. While the authorities lose their heads, the challenge is for observers to try and keep our wits about us.
spiked-issue: War on terror
(1) Quoted in the London Evening Standard, 17 July 2006
(2) Acpo: Police tactics proportionate to bomber threat, Politics.co.uk, 17 July 2006
(3) ‘Met fears on De Menezes ‘cover up’’, Guardian, 17 July 2006
(4) ‘The Cost of Telling the Truth’, Guardian, 15 May 2006
(5) Family of de Menezes ‘Needs to Know the Truth’, says Cardinal, Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster
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