Why did police shoot dead unarmed man Azelle Rodney seven years ago?

Phone-tap evidence to play crucial role in public inquiry into Azelle Rodney's death in 2005

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The Independent Online

Police officers have shot dead 41 men and one woman in the past 15 years. Some of the names on that list, Mark Duggan, Jean Charles de Menezes and Mark Saunders, have become household names after the controversies surrounding their deaths were exposed.

Another name on that list, Azelle Rodney, is not engrained into the public consciousness. But, with a public inquiry into his death due to open on Monday, seven years after he was shot at close range six times by an officer known only as E7, it could soon be.

Mr Rodney, a 24-year-old black man, was in the back of a Volkswagen Golf when it was stopped by three police vehicles carrying 14 specialist firearm officers from the Met's elite C019 armed unit in April 2005. The car was stopped in High Street in Edgware, north London, and E7 fired eight shots at Mr Rodney through the car with an assault rifle. He was struck in the face, neck, chest and head in front of screaming bystanders at 7.42pm.

Mr Azelle's daughter was born the day before his funeral.

More than seven years later, his family still have no idea why E7 believed Mr Rodney posed a "real and immediate risk" to others which justified him being shot dead. There has been no criminal prosecution and no inquest into his death. Next week, an inquiry opens in order to find out what happened that night. Sir Christopher Holland, a retired High Court judge, will try to ascertain "how, where and in what circumstances Mr Rodney died" and make appropriate recommendations after hearing oral evidence from more than 30 officers.

This inquiry is so vital because an inquest has never been possible in Mr Rodney's case. In a case that bears striking similarities to that of Mark Duggan, whose death in Tottenham sparked last year's riots, the intelligence relied upon by the officers who shot Mr Rodney was obtained through intercept communications – phone taps – which is inadmissible in British courts. The mere existence of intercept evidence and even the warrants issued by the Home Secretary to permit phone taps cannot be disclosed to an unauthorised person. In August 2007, as a result, a coroner ruled that a jury inquest into Mr Rodney's death was called for but impossible because of the centrality of intercept evidence.

Mr Rodney's death has been examined, to some extent, before. In December 2005, the Independent Police Complaints Commission found no evidence of misconduct. In July 2006, the Crown Prosecution Service said there was "insufficient evidence" to offer a realistic prospect of convicting any officer. But many questions have not yet been publicly answered.

For his inquiry, Sir Christopher has requested – and been granted by the Attorney General – immunity from criminal prosecution for the officers who will give evidence. The aim of this immunity, which will apply unless an officer is accused of providing false information, is to get full and frank evidence from them.

Susan Alexander, Mr Rodney's mother, told The Independent: "Waiting for so long to hear the evidence about the death of my son has had a profound effect on my life for the past seven years. My main concern now is to see a robust, effective and transparent inquiry. Everyone needs to know what happened on 30 April 2005 and why my son died that day."

So far, she has only fragments of that picture. We know, because officers have said in prior witness statements, that police intelligence suggested the occupants of the VW Golf, in which Mr Rodney was a passenger, were carrying guns, including automatic weapons, intended for use in a drugs robbery. E7's decision to fire at Mr Rodney was based on intelligence briefings given by E1, the team leader, and in part by Mr Rodney's movements after the car stopped. But it transpired that there were no rapid fire weapons in the car. Three handguns were found, and the two men in the front of the Golf, Wesley Lovell and Frank Graham, were jailed the following year for possession of firearms and ammunition. We know Mr Rodney was unarmed. The car, which had been under surveillance for some time, moved to "state red" – meaning it should be stopped immediately – just minutes after Mr Rodney had left a barber. We do not know why the police were told to intercept the car at that point.

Helen Shaw, co-director of the campaigning charity INQUEST, said: "The key question that was asked then, and has been asked subsequently but never satisfactorily answered in relation to preplanned and surveillance-based operations that have led to fatal shootings, is why there was no attempt to make an arrest earlier?"

After the CPS decision not to prosecute, Jack Straw, the then Justice Secretary, promised Mrs Alexander that steps were being taken to introduce legislation which would enable inquests to hear "sensitive material". But instead of prompting changes to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) 2000, to allow the intercept evidence to be heard in public, the Rodney case was used by ministers to propose secret inquests. Widespread opposition to those plans led to them being dropped from both the Counter Terrorism Bill 2008 and the Coroners and Justice Bill 2009.

Sir Christopher's inquiry was announced by the last Labour government weeks before the party lost the 2010 election – not long after Mrs Alexander began a human rights claim against it for failing to hold a prompt investigation (a failing that was admitted to the European Court by the current government earlier this year).

Further delays came when the Met tried to convince inquiry judges to grant 33 of its officers involved in the operation anonymity, and allow them to give evidence from behind a screen. Only E7 and the intelligence officers have been granted both.

But now the inquiry is finally about to start, and could have implications far beyond one mother's search for answers. It will be closely watched by the Duggan family, who will learn in October whether there is to be an inquest into his death. The inquiry is also expected to examine broad issues around preplanned, intelligence-based operations, first raised after the shootings of three IRA members by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988.

The inquiry is unlikely to give Mrs Alexander all the answers she seeks. It is possible that information gathered through the phone taps and used to justify the shooting, could be hidden from both her and the wider public. But next Monday, after seven years, she will feel she is on her way to the truth.

A proportionate response? Fatal shootings by police

Mark Duggan

A coroner will decide in October if an inquest into the fatal shooting by police of Mark Duggan can go ahead. The incident last August provided the spark for rioting in Tottenham which spread across Britain last summer. The issue of intercept evidence is key to whether any full inquest can be held.

Mark Saunders

Police marksmen carrying more than 100 guns surrounded the Chelsea home of barrister Mark Saunders after he starting firing shots from inside. Mr Saunders was killed after a five-hour stand-off. A jury found that Mr Saunders had been lawfully killed and the police response had been proportionate and reasonable.

Jean Charles de Menezes

The Brazilian electrician was shot and killed by police who mistook him for a suicide bomber in 2005. He was hit with seven bullets at Stockwell Tube station in south London the day after four would-be bombers embarked on a failed attack in London. An inquest jury returned an open verdict.