Watchdog 'will criticise police over use of guns'

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The Independent Online

Home office ministers will be asked to make changes to the way police forces run firearms operations in a far-reaching report by the service's official watchdog later this month.

Home Office ministers will be asked to make changes to the way police forces run their firearms operations in a far-reaching report by the service's official watchdog later this month.

The independent Police Complaints Authority has analysed the backgrounds to 26 police shootings since 1998 and will highlight operational and management failings in a report to be presented to the crime reduction minister, John Denham.

Its findings will be issued amid deep concerns over problems in recruiting police officers to firearms duties and at a time when gun-related crime is at record levels. The number of offences involving firearms has risen from 5,209 in 1998-99 to 7,362 in 2000-01 (up 41 per cent).

The total number where a firearm was reported to have been used (including mistaken reports and imitation weapons) increased from 13,874 in 1998-99 to 17,589 in 2000-01 (a rise of 27 per cent).

Statistics to be released by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, later this week are expected to show another steep rise in gun crime last year in metropolitan areas including London, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire.

The total number of officers entitled to carry a firearm, which once stood above 10,000, fell by a further 46 during 1999-2000 to 6,262 and is said to be in continued decline.

The inquiry was launched because the total of 26 incidents, including 11 fatalities, was a marked increase on the previous four years, when 16 incidents, including six fatalities, were recorded. Police were criticised because many of those shot dead had not been carrying guns.

The authority report will aim to address public concern over a series of high-profile police shootings between 1998 and 2001.

After the shooting of James Ashley in a bedsit in St Leonards, East Sussex, in January 1998, Mr Blunkett personally put pressure on Chief Constable Paul Whitehouse to resign.

The operation had been gravely mismanaged and false information about Mr Ashley was given to the public after the shooting, independent reports showed.

Mr Ashley, who was wanted by police and considered dangerous, was naked and unarmed when he was shot by a police marksman who burst through his bedroom door.

Other victims of fatal police shootings have included a schizophrenic man wearing his pyjamas who was carrying a Samurai sword in the street in Liverpool and a man who was walking home from the pub in London carrying a wooden coffee table leg that his brother had repaired.

Deborah Coles of Inquest, a charity that investigates deaths in custody, said the rise in gun crime was no excuse for lowering standards in police firearms units.

She said that, although fears over the activities of terrorists and organised criminals were legitimate, many of those being shot were mentally ill or entirely innocent.

The recruitment problem came to light at an inquest last month into a fatal police shooting in London. Michael Wood QC, representing the Metro-politan Police, told a coroner that a recent attempt to recruit senior officers to Scotland Yard's specialist operations firearms unit, SO19, resulted in only one application from the force's 900 inspectors.

Mark Williams, a member of the SO19 unit, complained yesterday that the team was 25 marksmen short of its 300-strong complement and was "just about holding the line".

Although Scotland Yard maintained that SO19 retained its appeal and had managed to recruit some inspectors from outside the force, Glen Smythe, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said positions on firearms units ­ once the subject of fierce competition ­ were no longer seen by officers as attractive.

Police were wary not only of facing armed criminals but of finding themselves subject to lengthy disciplinary or criminal proceedings if they were called upon to open fire, he said.

"Officers are unwilling to put their lives at risk and their future liberty in jeopardy. They have to make a split decision, which will be mulled over for years by all and sundry and leave their lives in limbo," he said.

Mr Smythe concluded: "Firearms was one of those things to aspire to, an elite unit. You cannot just join that team, you have to be really good. But people are not prepared to put their lives and their futures at risk."

Victims

JAMES ASHLEY, 39 (died 15 January 1998)

Bungled operation in which a naked and unarmed man was shot dead in his bedroom. Criticism from the Home Secretary led to the resignation of the Sussex chief constable. Four other officers faced criminal charges, which collapsed in court.

ANTONY KITTS, 20 (died 10 April 1999)

A former soldier and the father of a 10-week-old son, he was shot by a police marksman in Falmouth. Officers said they believed Mr Kitts was pointing a sniper rifle at them – the weapon was an air gun. The inquest returned a verdict of lawful killing.

HARRY STANLEY, 46 (died 23 September 1999)

Scottish-born painter and decorator was shot by police marksmen yards from his front door as he walked from a pub carrying a table leg. Police had answered a 999 call warning of an Irishman with a sawn-off shotgun. The inquest jury returned an open verdict.

ANDREW KERNAN, 37 (died 12 July 2001)

Shot dead while brandishing a samurai sword above his head on a street in Wavertree, Liverpool. Kernan was a schizophrenic and was dressed in his pyjamas when he was shot. Health workers were cleared of blame for his death by an internal review.

DEREK BENNETT, 29 (died 16 July 2001)

Shot four times in Brixton, south London, by police who believed he was carrying a gun and had taken a hostage. The "weapon" was a cigarette lighter shaped like a gun. The shooting provoked anger in the Afro-Caribbean community.