Police under pressure over shooting of unarmed man

Click to follow
IT WAS just after four in the morning on 15 January that a unit of armed police officers burst into a two-storey flat near Hastings, East Sussex. In one of the cheap rented rooms lay James Ashley, 39, sleeping alongside Caroline Courtland-Smith, a 19-year-old student.

Mr Ashley woke to the noise of the front door splintering. As he stood naked next to his bed, he was shot in the chest by a police marksman and died despite attempts to revive him.

This week came the unprecedented announcement that an inquiry would be conducted by a neighbouring police force into the conduct of the case by Sussex's Chief Constable and three of his senior officers. Meanwhile, a criminal inquiry could lead to charges against five other officers who have been suspended.

The morning after the shooting, Paul Whitehouse, the Chief Constable, defended the actions of his officers. "We were running simultaneously an operation to track down drug traffickers and also two men who had attempted to murder a man by stabbing him... One of them in particular was thought to be armed and dangerous, and an armed operation was used to arrest him."

At first, the case seemed open and shut. Ashley, it quickly "emerged", had served two years in jail in 1993 for the manslaughter of a man he punched during a pub fight. He was a dangerous criminal, the media were told.

But then things started to go wrong for Sussex Police and the fatal shooting of the Liver-pudlian is rapidly becoming a cause celebre.

Sussex Police's version of the events leading to the death of a dangerous man started to unravel days after the raid: Mr Ashley was unarmed, the only weapon found was an air pistol and only a tiny quantity of cannabis was recovered while three men arrested in the raid were later released uncharged.

In May, the Police Complaints Authority took the unusual step of announcing that, far from being a suspect for an attempted murder, Mr Ashley had probably saved a life by restraining a knife-wielding attacker fighting another man.

At the end of May, the inquest into Mr Ashley's death heard that investigators were being hampered because police officers had been unable to remember crucial facts about the incident. There were also allegations of misrepresentations of "intelligence" by senior officers.

Four of the suspended officers are being investigated for allegedly providing misleading information that led to the armed raid by the Special Operations Unit. The raid was part of an operation against a gang of cocaine traffickers. Mr Ashley was suspected of being a courier, although he had no convictions for drug-dealing.

Indeed, Mr Ashley's lifestyle suggested he was anything but a big-time criminal. When he moved south to Hastings eight years ago, he easily blended in among those living in the dilapidated and fading grandeur of the former Victorian resort which has a large number of unemployed residents, and more than its share of crime.

Mr Ashley was living in a block of flats next to The Club M - a private drinking club frequented by middle-aged men - in St Leonards, once an affluent town adjoining Hastings, but now run-down and neglected, and was a regular in several of the local pubs and had spent the day before his death drinking at The Club M - hardly life in the fast lane.

He was mourned not only by Caroline Courtland-Smith, but also his long- time girlfriend, Debra Crook, Despite the betrayal, she placed an announcement in a local newspaper declaring: "No one loved him as much as I did."

Witnessing her lover being shot dead has also had a devastating effect on Ms Courtland-Smith, according to her solicitor. She has left college and is said to have suffered a breakdown. She intends to sue the police for damages.

Mr Ashley's family in Liverpool is also preparing to make a legal claim against the police for the loss of life and use of lethal and excessive force. The family has already brought a complaint against the Chief Constable for allegedly trying to sully Mr Ashley's name, but it was rejected by the Sussex police authority.

An initial inquiry by Kent Police resulted in the suspension of PC Chris Sherwood, the officer who pulled the trigger, and four others - a superintendent, an inspector, a detective inspector, and a police constable - who are now expected to be charged with providing misleading information. Kent's Assistant Chief Constable, Barbara Wilding, said the operation was flawed and shambolic.

Such criticism led to the announcement of the second inquiry, into the conduct of Mr Whitehouse, his Deputy Chief Constable, Mark Jordan, and Assistant Chief Constables Nigel Yeo and Maria Wallis who will be questioned by a team led by Hampshire Chief Constable, Sir John Hoddinott.

Once the two inquiries are completed - the first by the end of September, the second by the end of the year - the Crown Prosecution Service will consider whether to bring charges. Whatever the outcome, difficult times loom for Sussex Police.