The armed response: More random shootings, more public danger, more debate they're understandably reluctant to talk about a job where

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'OH MY GOD,' cried Mrs Bennett, a hundred yards away in the raw, dark Yorkshire night, 'they're killing my lad.'

She was right. At 7.30pm on New Year's Day in 1992, her son Ian, brandishing a gun, was killed in front of a large crowd by one of three bullets fired from a Heckler and Koch 9mm sub-machine-gun, while an opportunistic neighbour with a camcorder videoed the entire drama. The lethal burst was fired by a policeman. Ian Bennett's gun proved to be a replica.

What kind of people made up the crowd - as many as 200 at times - with small children running about amid shouts of 'Rambo]' and 'You should have paid your poll tax, Ian]' and 'Go on, you daren't shoot]' What kind of man was Ian Bennett? What kind of policeman shoots his fellow citizen if necessary, without anger or ill-will, but to maim, perhaps to kill? The crowd were ordinary people, Ian Bennett's neighbours, in Rastrick, a small town near Halifax, West Yorkshire. 'Out to see what was going on,' says Assistant Chief Constable Bill Hughes of the West Yorkshire police. 'A tragic end to something people started off thinking of as a bit of fun. Unfortunately, we couldn't treat it as a bit of fun.'

Ian Bennett was already known to the police. His family doctor, who had treated him since 1984 for depression and later for excessive drinking, said at the inquest: 'He seemed to have got over his problem,' but earlier on the day he was shot, lying intoxicated on the pavement, he had threatened a neighbour with a replica pistol. All that saved him from arrest (which would, ironically, have saved his life) was the time of year - the West Yorkshire force, on reduced holiday strength, had to deal with 780 incidents on New Year's Day.

Between 1 January and 5 July, when the Bennett inquest jury brought in its verdict of lawful killing, three more men died at the hands of police marksmen on the British mainland. One of them, a known criminal with a record of violence, was found to be 'armed' with a starting pistol. In 1992, in all armed deployments in mainland Britain, a total of 12 shots was fired, killing four wrongdoers, injuring eight. The police themselves sustained three casualties, none of them fatal.

AT LIPPETTS HILL in Epping Forest, where the Metropolitan Police train their own and other firearms officers, they produce a range of weapons, from revolvers to sub-machine-guns, all displayed in pairs. In a well-lit room, you are invited to say which of each pair is real and which a replica: you may take all the time you need. You may even handle them - but, in feel as well as appearance, a replica AKS-74 assault rifle, sawn-off Mossberg shotgun or Glock pistol is identical to the real thing. Indeed, it may be the real thing. Specialist magazines advertise a mail-order range of genuine rifles, automatics and sub- machine-guns 'deactivated to comply with Home Office specifications'.

Add such factors as furiously shouted threats, paralysing shock and perhaps darkness and distance, and the question of real or replica becomes academic. 'If it looks real it is real,' said one officer. 'Stopping to think about it could be the last thought you had.'

Most incidents which involve armed police are pre-planned by the force: the ambush or raiding of known criminals. Others are 'domestics': a family argument, a lovers' quarrel, a drunken brawl, or an outwardly stable individual for whom life suddenly splits wide open. According to Superintendent Mike Waldren of S019, the Metropolitan Police firearms unit, they start unpredictably, usually with a warning from a member of the public. Many prove to be false alarms, but when PC Royston Daniells, 26, alerted by a neighbour, went to a flat in Harlesden where a soldier was holding his girlfriend prisoner, shots fired through the door hit him and killed the neighbour. Or surprise may be total: PC Keith Bottomley, 23, an unprepared probationary officer in Suffolk, was maimed by a sawn-off shotgun fired point-blank. Ian Bennett started off as a 'domestic'.

'Christmas and New Year,' according to Hughes, 'give us half the problems we're beset with. After a few days the season of good will begins to wear a bit thin.' New Year's Day had begun to wear a bit thin for Ian Bennett. First a row with a policeman after his girlfriend was taken to hospital with a suspected overdose. Then, at 5.30pm, a violent dispute with a taxi driver who had allegedly overcharged for taking him home to a housing estate in Rastrick. The taxi driver summoned help on his radio. At 5.45pm the incident was reported to the local police station at Brighouse.

When a sergeant and two constables arrived, a crowd of angry cabbies had gathered and Ian had smashed his driver's windscreen with a replica sword. At 5.54pm, Brighouse incident room received an alleged eyewitness report that he had shot at the taxi before retreating into his flat. Police and taxi drivers scattered when he aimed a gun at them from a window. A disturbance had become a firearms incident.

The first response of the police in such a situation is containment: to seal off the area and keep the situation as static as possible in the circumstances. 'One man in front of the door, or (many) surrounding the Libyan embassy,' says an experienced officer, 'they're both containments.'

The second is to gather information for assessment by a senior officer at the local station. Were shots actually fired? Is the suspect still armed? Where is he now? What is known about him? What is the weapon? This is where things began to move against Ian Bennett.

Prodigiously drunk, he responded to jeers from a steadily growing crowd with obscenities, challenges to the police to come and get him, threats to 'blow you away'. No mention of replica weapons had yet reached the police.

In any case, 'if the police officer is under the impression that this is a real firearm, it should be dealt with as a real firearm,' asserts Jim Sharples, Chief Constable of Merseyside and chairman of the two firearms committees of the Association of Chief Police Officers. One police car had already stopped outside Bennett's flat, only to accelerate away when its driver saw a gun trained on him. Some in the Rastrick crowd knew that Ian Bennett - a bit of a nutter, especially when he'd had a few - collected replicas, but people ducked when he aimed his gun at them. Yet they stayed on, gripped by the unfolding of that classic thriller plot, an armed man trapped and at bay.

The textbook response to such a situation is, put simply, to reinforce containment with an ARV - an armed (not armoured) response vehicle, then talk the suspect out. An ARV is a standard vehicle - usually a white police car with the usual trimmings - whose officers have had training in firearms and basic negotiating skills and carry weapons under lock and key. In West Yorkshire, 124 officers of 5,000 are trained in the use of arms. Only 24, in shifts, ride in ARVs.

To draw their weapons, ARV officers must be authorised by an assistant chief constable or, in extreme emergency, a superintendent. Only a small number of specially qualified police - the public would call them bodyguards - carry personal weapons for the protection of the Royal Family, ministers and other VIPs, and when suspected terrorists are held.

Control of a firearms incident is always in the hands of an officer of the local force. The Bennett incident commander was a chief inspector at Brighouse. At 6.15pm, on his advice, Hughes authorised firearms to be drawn. At about 6.30pm, an ARV with two officers arrived at the scene. A road-block had been established but the crowd remained, gathered in side streets and gardens, watching from the windows of their homes. A request to the Brighouse station for reinforcements is said to have been refused; the incident commander was later to deny that it had been received.

What followed was a horrid mix of black farce and heartbreak. In response to shouts, Ian Bennett came out of his flat and laid an axe and a gun on the pavement. For an estimated 30 seconds Bennett and the concealed police peered towards each other. Then suddenly, after further insults, he flung himself back inside. Meanwhile, his mother and father had arrived, to be held at the barrier by a constable while Mrs Bennett pleaded to be allowed to talk to her boy. She was refused: family interventions have been known to make matters worse. Michael Ryan, the deranged Hungerford killer, shot his mother dead when she begged him to give up his gun. In the meantime Ian was back indoors, pointing a rifle and taunting the police.

The Brighouse incident commander decided to reinforce the ARV by calling in a firearms team, a highly trained group known as Level 1 or specialist firearms officers. Hand-picked, they are carefully screened, get three weeks' intensive training in every aspect of armed operations, regularly retrain and may alternate as instructors after gaining experience on the job. More than 70 per cent of applicants fail. 'We don't select them in,' I was told. 'We select them out.'

Such teams are only used in incidents known or believed to involve firearms, judged to represent a serious threat to life. Each team numbers around nine plus a sergeant with an inspector in command. They are usually men, but some include women. Part of individual forces, not all of which have them, they are only deployed at the request of local police, principally for drugs raids and ambushes based on prior knowledge of planned armed crime, but also for hostage takers, threatened suicides and sad pop-up cases like Ian Bennett. They have a formidable armoury: Glock semi-automatic pistols, Heckler and Koch sub-machine-guns, helmets, shields, body armour, Dragon lights, tools for forcible entry, visual probes and listening devices, all carried, in theory, in bullet-proof vehicles. (West Yorkshire vehicles, at the time of the Bennett case, were not.) They shatter the cosy image of the unarmed British bobby as violently as their hydraulic rams shatter doors, and cause many people besides villains profound unease. 'If it's thought the need is there,' Sharples says, 'we'll have no inhibitions.'

Shock tactics are only used when surprise is essential to forestall violence or the disposal of evidence. 'The last thing you want is to surround the place, tell them there's armed police outside and watch the toilet flush away all the drugs. You have to gauge the response: the full, dramatic thing you see in the papers occasionally, or a low-profile operation. In the middle of the day you've got to think about schools, shoppers, (but)

if there's large amounts of drugs, money, firearms - and drugs inevitably means they're armed - you can't use a softly-

softly approach.'

ARE WE going down the American path? 'No,' says Jim Sharples, whose Merseyside patch, like neighbouring Greater Manchester, has firearms problems aplenty. 'We haven't got the gun culture that exists over there. But we can't afford to be complacent.' Sometimes there are daylight, city-centre swoops on suspects believed to be armed. A Met officer gave me a West End example: 'Three of the team in plainclothes went through the (shop) door and, as luck would have it, he was leaning on the counter, both hands in view. The man who grabbed his wrists was covered by officers with their hands on their guns in case, but he didn't know they were armed police. The world went by without realising we'd made an armed arrest.'

The Rastrick incident was different. Deployment was directed from a control room in Bradford, a chief inspector leaving for Brighouse at 6.50pm as firearms tactical adviser. Meanwhile the Bennetts had told the constable restraining them that Ian's weapons were all replicas.

This information was forwarded to Brighouse, but only after a delay. There was a further delay in passing the news to Bradford, whose radio controller was subsequently unable to say whether it had reached the firearms team. What reverberates in that unexplained silence is the maxim already quoted: if it looks real, it is real. And a man with a passion for replica guns may also have a real one.

'A local officer isn't likely to have experience of an armed threat-to-life situation,' Mike Waldren says. 'Though he remains in charge, the firearms adviser's job is to support him.' According to Bill Hughes, 'one of the things the firearms adviser will always (ensure) the incident commander bears in mind is: 'Do we need a negotiator?' ' Specialist firearms teams are trained to intervene directly if necessary, but may work, when it is feasible and appropriate, with trained negotiatiors. The hope is always to talk suspects out.

Negotiators, says Chief Superintendent Roy Ramm of SO10, the Met's negotiation section, are mostly inspectors and chief inspectors. 'You have a co-ordinator system, very experienced negotiators who carry a radio pager. So 24 hours a day, all the year round, the co-ordinator can advise. But (negotiators) have other jobs to do. It can take a couple of hours to track them down and get them out there.' In a couple of hours anything can happen. 'The worst thing,' according to Paul, one of a firearms team, 'is a tragic waste of life you haven't been able

to prevent. I've been in a house where a whole family had

been killed.'

Members of firearms teams do not care for the media. Trapped in a double bind, they prefer not to discuss their job but feel a deep sense of injustice when the media pass instant, sometimes ill-informed, judgement on the rare firing of shots, and they are powerless to reply. They are reluctant to talk, have their names published, be photographed. Nothing sinister about it, they insist: they, too, are members of the community, with wives, families and a job to do, but not necessarily popular among certain other members of the community whose friends they may have, to use the memorable phrase of one of them, 'invoked stress upon'. And when death or injury ensues they have no immunity. No matter what pyramid of command towers above the officer with the gun, the law says that he, and he alone, bears the responsibility for deciding to fire, and for the consequences. Which is why PC Karl Floyd, who shot Ian Bennett, was obliged to justify himself under cross-examination in the Bradford coroner's court.

The team I met in a drab building where the City of London crumbles into the East End were a far cry from the anonymous, intimidating cybermen one sees in television plays, who point lethal weapons and blinding lights, and shout: 'Armed police. Throw out your weapon and come out with your hands up]' Easy to like, they didn't, in informal dress, look as outwardly tough as a local rugby team. Dave, the sergeant, and the oldest constable, Bob, are middle-aged; the rest in their thirties. All had graduated from normal police duties, though they objected to the word 'normal'. 'A PC on the beat actually has the more dangerous job,' Bob said.

All but two are married; one single, one divorced. Six or seven children, depending on how you looked at it; Paul said, 'One child, nine months to go, my wife told me she was pregnant this morning.' Asked about the risks of their work, they looked blank. 'People from the press,' Graham said, 'think every time you go out you're going to shoot someone or he's going to shoot you. Mostly it's a peaceful incident, suspect arrested, premises searched, hand him over and disappear.'

But there are worse things than being shot.

Talking about a drugs raid, Dave said: 'We knew two of them were definitely HIV-positive and hepatitis B was going around, the two things we fear more than bullets. It's more and more common, especially in drugs-related operations. This guy put up a struggle and bit Stewart, burst the skin, a fair bit of bleeding. At the hospital the doctor said: 'You can have the hepatitis B injection. Come back in three months and I'll tell you whether you're going to die.' That's what this character said]' Another story: 'I had one, suicide by cop they call it, came out with a gun in his hand, wouldn't do what he was told and he was shot. He survived, but he was full-blown Aids and hepatitis B and there was a lot of blood around. The ambulance crew insisted everybody was sprayed down, because we weren't wearing full protection.'

So what is the attraction of the job? The same word occurred over and over again - professionalism their verbal talisman. 'So much planning, even in the simplest job .. but first and foremost the safety of everyone concerned. Us, the public, and that includes the family of the person you're going to arrest, especially children.

'The intelligence is inevitably inaccurate; you're not aware at the beginning who's there, how many children, any dogs, do his parents or grandparents live there? If you're going to go through a bedroom window, where's the bed, and who's in it? Is it a children's room? Do the children sleep in the bed with Mum? Is Mum lying right beneath the window, because when you crack it, that window's going wherever it goes. The last thing you want is to find that a child, or a woman who's got no other blame than being married to the suspect, has been hurt.'

They might have added that much of this care has its roots in past tragedies, but: 'You draw on everybody. Somebody who's been in before, domestic dispute, whatever, says: 'Oh, I've been in there.' 'Right,' we say, 'draw what you remember.' It might not be accurate but at least it's something. He can tell you: 'That's definitely a bedroom.' Likewise, if you can go in a house or a flat that's similar, you use it if it doesn't compromise anyone, though that's rare on preplanned operations.'

They are often outspokenly critical of each other during the standard 'debrief' after an incident. 'Savage, sometimes.' New lessons learned are promptly shared; word of mouth, regional meetings, to final formalisation by the Association of Chief Police Officers and approval by the Home Office. Of approximately 137,000 policemen, roughly 7,700 - 5.6 per cent - are authorised to draw firearms. A still smaller proportion of them are Level 1officers. The current policy is for fewer officers even more highly trained. And the procedure for containment and siege is meticulous.

In the Met they use a guide headed 'Contingencies'. It covers: (1) resolution by force; (2) surrender; (3) shots fired at cordon; (4) escape of hostage(s); (5) escape of suspect or fire (literally, premises are sometimes set alight); (6) darkness and (7) secondary negotiations. Forces other than the Met may not use precisely the same headings but will cover the same points.

Each contingency is covered in greater detail in aide memoire cards - their content may not be reproduced - permitting fine-tuning to take account of present and new factors and to ensure that everyone involved in the incident has a clear understanding of the basic plan. 'But,' Superintendent Waldren said, when aide memoires come into play, 'we're talking about well into a siege, three or four hours.'

One rule is categorical: 'Only fire if you or any member of the force is at risk and there is no other way of affording protection. Otherwise if shots are fired (ie, by a suspect) they must be reported back without response.'

What is not said is that if someone is shooting at you, you may not shoot back. An officer under attack at the risk of his life is entitled to return fire.

Well into a siege the suspect has been contained, the public excluded, the area cordoned off. There will be inner and outer cordons, with neighbours evacuated or out of harm's way. The outer cordon is of local police, who divert traffic, control access and collect information about the suspect. The inner cordon is of local officers in close collaboration with the specialist firearms team. As Bill Hughes put it: 'We don't shoot anybody, none of us gets shot - that's a successful operation.'

Back at Rastrick, we are on a housing estate in the dark and the cold; a boozy bank holiday with half the neighbourhood out in search of thrills. For a variety of reasons which may never be fully explained, whatever contingency plans existed were trumped by a drunken joker and his audience. The officers at Rastrick were not 'well into a siege'.

'Our policy is to talk them out,' said Hughes, 'but you have to have an armed containment. We did not. On a bank holiday we have one armed response vehicle to get there. I don't consider that sufficient.' On negotiation he added: 'Negotiators aren't just lying about. The word is put out to the controller, but it's not something you reach for straight away.'

JUST before 7.30pm, an unarmoured van moving slower than a hearse appeared in front of Ian Bennett's flat, three marksmen advancing cautiously behind it. The driver, when Ian aimed his gun at him, threw himself hastily out. A woman team-member turned a Dragon light on Ian. According to the evidence, Ian aimed at it, then at PC Floyd as he shouted three quick warnings. A burst of three rounds, so rapid that the cam-

corder enthusiast went on chatting to a friend, but Ian Bennett was dead.

Operations in which shots are fired are always investigated by the independent but Home Office-appointed Police Complaints Authority, or the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland. Some say that Home Office-plus-independent is a kind of oxymoron. Among them is John Wadham of Liberty, formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties. Liberty thinks the PCA should have its own investigators rather than supervising officers from another police force. Brigadier John Pownall, deputy chairman of the PCA, says: 'In most cases the investigating officers do a good job. Their professional credibility is at stake. We don't have the wool pulled over our eyes. We really don't'

Liberty isn't happy about inquests either: 'You'll see Police Federation and police authority lawyers there. They'll have access to all the papers. The relatives' lawyer doesn't and there's no legal aid, no proper information about what's decided: that's not justice being seen to be done.' John Pownall does not wholly disagree, but says that any alternative would require changes in the law.

Ian's parents were represented at their own expense. The inquest lasted more than six months. The jury heard 170 hours of evidence, made two visits to Ian Bennett's flat and were out for three days before bringing in a verdict of lawful killing. The pivotal event had lasted for seconds.

'It's dark,' Superintendent Waldren had told me, 'you're listening to the radio, you're aware in general terms of what's happening. Your job is to prevent this person getting out. You know when you're allowed to shoot and when you can't. Suddenly it's all happening. The gun points at you. You feel threatened. You shoot.'

An autopsy found 337mg of alcohol per 100ml in Ian Bennett's blood; 400mg is considered to be life-threatening. PC Floyd, who was alleged to have broken cover contrary to practice, fired because he felt his own and his team-mates' lives were threatened. Not so, but we only know that with hindsight. 'If it looks real, it is real.'

Within days the West Yorkshire police had two more incidents; real sieges, real guns; one a pair of prisoners on the run, the other a would-be suicide. All were successfully talked out. According to Jim Rivers, head of Met welfare services, 'critical incident stress trauma' affects some marksmen long after the event. It presumably affects relatives, too.