Met in crisis as protesting officers lay down arms

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The Independent Online

Scotland Yard was facing a security crisis today as more than a quarter of its firearms officers indicated they are prepared to down their weapons and effectively go on strike.

Around 120 armed officers in London have signed a motion saying they are willing to temporarily lay down arms in protest at the suspension of two colleagues who were involved in a fatal shooting.

Inspector Neil Sharman and Pc Kevin Fagan could face criminal charges after a second inquest into the death of Harry Stanley, 46, last week returned a verdict of unlawful killing five years after his death.

The two officers said they thought Mr Stanley was pointing a shotgun at them when they fired, but he had been carrying a table leg.

The inquest verdict and the decision to suspend the pair sent shockwaves through SO19, the Metropolitan Police's 400-strong specialist firearms unit which mans armed response vehicles, provides a counter-sniper capability and is a key component in the fight against terrorism and gun crime.

More than 20 officers have already handed in their authorisation tickets to carry firearms and in a desperate round of meetings, senior officers were trying to convince others not to follow suit today.

An SO19 source said: "More than 100 have now indicated they are not prepared to carry on at the moment until they review their position.

"They are bitterly disappointed at the way the two officers have been treated and they feel unsupported."

There was sympathy for the officers' position among many senior Met commanders who were hoping to avoid an all-out downing of weapons.

A source said: "There is a colossal amount of sympathy with the officers and it's a very fluid situation at the moment. They are a very, very important unit and they do an essential job for the public on the streets of London."

So far the revolt has not had an operational impact on SO19 but if the other 100 hand their tickets in, the Met's firearms capability could be crippled.

"There's no denying it would leave us in a very, very difficult situation," a source said.

All firearms officers volunteer to carry weapons and senior commanders are also concerned about the long-term impact of this crisis on recruitment.

There is no disciplinary sanction for quitting as a firearms officer and returning to normal duties.

Richard Barnes, Conservative London Assembly spokesman on policing and a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said the firearms officers should be supported.

He said: "These police officers don't take these decisions lightly. They, more than anybody else, recognise the danger this action places on both their unarmed colleagues and Londoners.

"That they are considering this action therefore shows the seriousness of the situation. Our armed response officers are the ultimate front line in securing Londoners against armed criminals and terrorists.

"They also courageously place themselves in impossible situations, requiring split-second life and death decisions.

"They therefore deserve the full support of senior officers and the public.

"This is a very grave situation - and the Met's senior officers need to find an urgent resolution."

SO19 officers held two crisis meetings following the Harry Stanley inquest verdict.

The motion was signed yesterday at a second crisis summit at their secret headquarters in London.

Those who do withdraw from firearms duties will still go into work and perform other policing roles.

Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: "Although a disturbing decision, I am not surprised that firearms officers in London have taken this step after two of their colleagues were suspended for an incident that any one of them could have faced.

"With the benefit of hindsight, we can all say what we may have done but these two officers were required to make a split-second assessment and decision."

Glen Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said there was "anger and disquiet" over the suspensions.

He said: "Firearms officers have one of the most demanding and difficult jobs in policing.

"It is dangerous, requires a high degree of skill and can place them in situations where they have to take split-second decisions over life and death.

"I wouldn't describe this as a protest. I would describe it as officers wanting some clarity around what it is that they are expected to do in similar circumstances.

"What it means is that there is less professional firearms coverage to protect the people of London."

Mr Smyth added that a legal challenge to the inquest finding was being considered, based on concerns about the coroner's directions to the jury.

But the Stanley family's lawyer, Daniel Machover, said that the jury's finding was a verdict on the actions of the individual police officers involved, and not on the Met's firearms practices in general.

Mr Machover said: "If officers act in lawful self-defence, they have nothing to fear. That is what these officers failed to do, according to this jury. That is the point.

"There is no broad attack on the training and tactics adopted by the Metropolitan Police.

"What these officers fell foul of is their account of what they said was an imminent threat they faced. They were not believed in their accounts.

"That is a very important outcome and the Met should quite properly suspend officers where that significant outcome is the one that is reached."

Pc Norman Brennan, founder and director of the police support group Protect the Protectors, called for an urgent meeting between Home Secretary David Blunkett, Met Commissioner Sir John Stevens and the Greater London Assembly to resolve the growing problem.

He added: "I fear the ramifications will be catastrophic for the people of London in our fight against terrorism, armed robbery and those who carry firearms as a tool of their trade.

"We're not robocops but are human beings who join the police service to protect the public and keep the peace to the best of our ability.

"And on occasions armed police have to make a life or death decision in a split second on the facts that you see at the time."

A Met spokesman said: "All members of the firearms unit are volunteers and whilst we fully understand their concerns, we are urging them to reconsider."