Welcome to the Police Academy state

The shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes reveals the chaos within the institutions of the British state.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

On the morning of 22 July 2005, Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year-old Brazilian, set off to work from his South London home. It was just past 9.30am. At Stockwell tube station, less than 40 minutes later, his body lay motionless on the floor of an underground train. He’d been shot in the head seven times by the firearms unit of the Metropolitan Police.

Mistaken for Hussain Osman, one of the suspects for a failed bomb attempt on 21 July 2005, de Menezes was the tragic victim of a series of horrendous police errors. From the failure of a surveillance officer to identify de Menezes because he was ‘relieving’ himself as de Menezes left for work – indeed, the failure of any officer to make a positive identification – to its tragic, trigger-happy conclusion, the young electrician’s death was marked by a catalogue of errors and serious misjudgements.

For many, these particular errors and misjudgements are all too familiar. Since it became clear that de Menezes’ killing had been a terrible mistake, the case has been the subject of two inquiry reports, and, in November 2007, an Old Bailey trial at which the Met were found guilty of a ‘catastrophic’ breach of health and safety law – a stunningly euphemised misdemeanour for which they were fined £175,000. What the public doesn’t know about the police’s many failings with regards to de Menezes is not worth knowing.

Yet, despite shooting an innocent man seven times in the head, the Crown Prosecution Service has refused to bring criminal charges, and what’s more staggering, nobody – not Sir Ian Blair, then Metropolitan Police commissioner, nor Cressida Dick, then head of the operation – felt morally obliged to take responsibility and resign. Detail-heavy transparency has gone hand-in-hand with institutional fudging; an unprecedented acknowledgement of failings with a refusal to face the consequences.

On 28 September this year, the circus revved up once more, as a seven-week coroner’s inquest into de Menezes’ death began. And after nearly two months of forensic detail, teary police officers, and gut-wrenching eyewitness accounts, the magnitude of the Met’s error was once again in the public spotlight. And once again, the result was a fudge. The jury was informed by the coroner, Michael Wright QC, that they were forbidden from recording a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’.

Still, the verdict delivered by the jury was as damning as it could be. On virtually every key point, the jury rejected the Met’s version of events. They did not shout ‘armed police’ before shooting de Menezes; surveillance officers did not have a photo of the man they were meant to be looking for; and de Menezes did not behave suspiciously.

Unfortunately, the absence of the ‘unlawful killing’ verdict, which would have seen the police finally take responsibility for their actions, means that the de Menezes case is likely to rumble on. And in doing so, it provides ample opportunity for yet more overblown rhetoric, moral posturing, and distorted perception.

Responding to the critical reaction to the inquest since the verdict, Sir Ian Blair complained that it was little more than a desperate search for scapegoats. But he missed the point. The tragic case of Jean Charles de Menezes has not prompted a search for scapegoats so much as created a martyr. But this is no ordinary martyr. He did not die for a cause he himself believed in, but one others cynically attributed to him. Two years ago, Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said that the case ‘shows the level of institutional Islamophobia in Britain today’. Others, less concerned with ‘institutional Islamophobia’, have preferred the totalitarian thesis. As one commentator argued: ‘I think therefore that we can judiciously conclude that while we may not yet live in a police state, the police are above the law when it comes to lethal force.’ Such is the usefulness of de Menezes, one commentator writes ominously in the Guardian, that ‘the individual death, particularly one at the hands of the state, should not be allowed to fade from the collective memory’.

As police states go, Islamophobic or not, it’s neither very competent nor secretive. Indeed, if anything, what the de Menezes case has proved is that the state, and the police in particular, seems pathologically keen to expose its flaws to the public. Two reports, a high-profile criminal trial and an inquest are a testament to such inconsequential transparency. Indeed, the inquest itself, self-consciously modelled on the hearings earlier this year into the death of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, made a public spectacle of the case, bringing every detail to the public’s attention, be it a crying marksman or de Menezes’ last moments. It became something not so much to understand, but to relate to emotionally and politically, as if it told a story, perhaps of an Islamophobic elite or a brutal police state. And if neither the transcripts nor the daily reports were sufficient, you can now watch the CCTV footage of the fateful morning on any number of interactive accompaniments to the inquest. See de Menezes get off the bus! Watch as officer ‘Ivor’ tails him! Gasp at the body of de Menezes! (1)

What such a spectacle of error shows is that despite the more feverish imaginings of certain commentators, this is not so much a police state as the Police Academy state, tragically rendered – an ‘organisational shambles’, as the Guardian’s Michael White puts it.

But these feverish imaginings are not confined to those seeking to make a cause out of a tragedy; they underpin the tragedy itself. For, if anything, it’s the fearful mindset of the police that became most apparent during the inquest. Two weeks after the 7 July bombings, and a day after the failed 21 July bomb attempt, tensions were understandably high. But perceptions were also unhelpfully distorted. A fearful imagination meant that where there were electricians, the police could see suicide bombers. Sir Ian Blair captured the febrile nature of this climate, giddy on nightmares, when he said at the weekend that de Menezes was killed in the ‘fog of war’. Given that this fog engulfed those giving the orders, little wonder officers stopped behaving rationally. Everything looked suspicious. Hence the willingness to see in de Menezes’ actions a sinster intent. At one point, he gets off the bus, sees that Brixton station is closed, makes a phone call to his boss to say that he’ll be late, and gets back on the bus. This was enough to confirm police suspicions that here was a man acting abnormally.

On both sides, be it those who see de Menezes as a victim of incipient authoritarianism or the police who view him as a casualty of war, an overly excited imagination has eclipsed reason.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton noted the conspiracy theories around the Stockwell shooting. Mick Hume argued that the de Menezes case showed we’ve lost the ability to be rational about terrorism. Brendan O’Neill looked at the self-loathing over Stockwell and described the 7/7 attacks as a very British bombing. Neil Davenport wrote that the desire for security means the police are more popular than ever. Or read more at spiked issues War on Terror.

(1) For example see All the videos from Stockwell tube station, Guardian, 22 September 2008

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Topics Politics


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