Court told of chaos and confusion that led to Menezes shooting

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The police operation that ended in the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in front of commuters was "fundamentally flawed" and beset by a catalogue of errors by Scotland Yard officers which exposed the public to grave risk of death or injury, a court heard yesterday.

The only prosecution to arise from the death of the Brazilian electrician provided a graphic picture of confusion and poor communication between police during the crucial hours that led to Mr Menezes being shot seven times in the head as he boarded a London Underground train on his way to work on 22 July 2005.

A jury at the Old Bailey heard how a covert police surveillance team was left without the back-up of an armed arrest team as it watched a south London flat where it was believed members of the terrorist cell responsible for the failed Tube and bus bombings less than 24 hours earlier could be hiding.

The absence of a squad from the Yard's CO19 specialist firearms unit – despite its presence being ordered four hours earlier – allegedly meant that Mr Menezes was not safely stopped by officers as he left his home at 9.33am on the day of his death.

Instead, surveillance officers struggled for 30 minutes to identify whether the 27-year-old Brazilian was Hussain Osman, one of the July 21 bombers, as he travelled on foot and by bus to Stockwell Tube station.

Conflicting messages from the surveillance team to the "noisy and chaotic" control room in Scotland Yard resulted in an order to perform a "hard stop" on Mr Menezes by CO19 officers, who had rushed to the Tube station with no idea whether he was the suspected bomber, it was claimed.

The first full public account of the events that led to the tragedy came as the Metropolitan Police went on trial under health and safety legislation for allegedly failing in its statutory duty to do everything reasonable to protect the public from harm during Operation Theseus – the massive investigation to catch the four July 21 bombers. Scotland Yard, which faces an unlimited fine if convicted, strongly denies the charge.

Clare Montgomery QC, for the prosecution, told the court: "The police operation that led to the tragic shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes was fundamentally flawed. A series of failures by officers at all levels combined to put the public, including Jean Charles, at risk on 22 July. Those risks were not trivial but grave and serious."

Amid an international outcry, the killing resulted in two separate investigations by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. But despite heavily criticising the conduct of one senior officer for failing to tell the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair that an innocent man had been killed until 24 hours after the shooting, the IPCC ruled there was insufficient evidence to bring any criminal charges against individual officers.

Instead, a case is being brought by the Crown Prosecution Service under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act which imposes a duty on any employer, including a police force, to safeguard the public within "reasonable and practicable" limits.

The opening day of the six-week trial was told that this meant there had been a catastrophic failure by the Yard to put fully into operation a plan by Commander John McDowell, the officer in charge of Operation Theseus, to watch the small block of flats at 21 Scotia Road, a cul-de-sac in the Tulse Hill area of south London. Officers were led to the address after a gym membership card belonging to Osman, who had tried to blow himself on a train at Shepherd's Bush, was found in the rucksack he had been wearing.

At 4.55am on 22 July, Mr McDowell ordered that the flat be surrounded by a surveillance team from the Yard's Special Branch and backed by a CO19 firearms unit who were to perform a "stop" or detain anyone leaving the building once they were out of sight of the flat.

But despite the first surveillance team being in place by 6am, the court heard that the order to deploy specialist firearms officers to Scotia Road did not reach the officer in charge of the chosen unit until four hours after Mr McDowell's plan had been finalised, by which time six people had left the apartment block.

The undercover team followed the Brazilian on his journey to work, coming under intense pressure from the Yard control room, led by Commander Cressida Dick, to give a definitive answer as to whether he was the suspect, Osman. Despite reporting that Mr Menezes had aroused suspicions by texting and looking over his shoulder, the covert team said they could not identify beyond being a "possible" match for Osman. Repeated requests from the surveillance officers to stop and arrest the Brazilian were turned down, the court heard.

Ms Montgomery said this meant a potential mass killer had been allowed to walk unhindered into the rush hour and then been alerted to a police presence at least twice – once when an unmarked police car briefly tried to stop the bus Mr Menezes was travelling on and then by the sight of armed police running down the Tube platform moments before he was killed.

She said: "Jean Charles, who within minutes of his emergence the police believed might be a suicide bomber, was allowed to walk to a bus stop, get on a bus, get off the bus, get on again, and finally enter Stockwell Tube station. If he had been a suicide bomber emerging with a back pack and a murderous intent no one had any established plan that could have dealt with him because the firearms officers had not arrived ... We suggest there was no good reason for this state of affairs."

The court heard that meanwhile the Yard control room was overcrowded with officers, meaning that the officers in charge of relaying the messages from the surveillance team had "great difficulty" hearing their radio transmissions, the court heard.

During the 30 minutes of Mr Menezes' journey from his flat, Ms Dick and her team believed he had at first been positively identified as not being Osman and then, seconds before he entered the Tube station, was confirmed as being the bomber.

As surveillance officers sat near the Brazilian on the Tube train, the firearms officers "burst" on to the platform. One of the covert team, codenamed "Ivor", alerted them to Mr Menezes' position. When the armed officers entered the train, Mr Menezes stood up and was grabbed by Ivor, pushing him back into his seat in a bear hug.

Ms Montgomery said: "Two firearms officers leant over Ivor, who was holding Jean Charles and one put his pistol against Jean Charles's head and fired. He was shot seven times and died immediately."

The court heard that in the confusion, another officer dragged Ivor out of the carriage and held his weapon against his chest while the driver of the train, who had fled down the tunnel, was challenged at gunpoint. Ms Montgomery said: "You may think that the fact the police ended up pointing a gun at another policeman and mistaking a terrorised train driver for a bomber gives us a clue as to just how far wrong the operation had gone. "

The case continues.

Key figures at the Met

Cressida Dick

Commander Dick, 47, was in charge of the special operations room at Scotland Yard on 22 July 2005. She gave the final order for armed officers to carry out a "hard stop" on the Brazilian at Stockwell Tube station, although she did not issue any order to shoot to kill.

John McDowell

The senior figure in SO13, the Met's anti-terrorist squad, was in charge of Operation Theseus, the hunt for the 21 July bombers. He and Cmdr Hayman made a statement on the day of the shooting saying that the Brazilian's behaviour and dress had aroused suspicion.

Sir Ian Blair

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police claimed that the Brazilian electrician had been directly linked to the previous day's failed suicide bombings. The Menezes family accused him of lying.

Andy Hayman

The IPCC report, published in August, directed its strongest criticism at Andy Hayman, the head of anti-terrorism at the Met, who is alleged to have misled other officers by not telling them that the wrong man was killed.