Fatal flaws that made armed raid spin out of control

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The Independent Online

When a Sussex Police marksman pressed the trigger of his Heckler & Koch carbine rifle in the darkness of a seaside flat three and a half years ago, he not only killed a small-time drug dealer but dealt a fatal blow to the career of his own high-flying chief constable.

Petty villain James Ashley, who was shot at point-blank range and died instantly, was killed naked and unarmed in his own bedroom in front of his teenage girlfriend.

At the time of the operation, in January 1998, the Sussex Chief Constable, Paul Whitehouse, 56, was being touted as a future Metropolitan Police Commissioner. When he went to bed on the evening of 14 January that year, he can have had little idea that his career was about to fall apart.

But by the following morning Mr Whitehouse had been forced to convene a hasty press conference to explain why St Leonards, an apparently sleepy resort, had been the scene of a fatal police shooting. Indeed, despite warnings from colleagues that he should not speak out ahead of a Police Complaints Authority (PCA) investigation into such a death, Mr Whitehouse went public.

He said: "I am satisfied the operation was properly and professionally planned, that the use of firearms was justified and that my officers acted properly and with due regard to everybody's safety." It wasn't true. The 25-strong police team that raided Mr Ashley's flat had been badly misinformed and improperly prepared. They were expecting to face a convicted murderer, who was accustomed to using firearms and was minding a large consignment of cocaine.

At his press conference, Mr Whitehouse falsely linked Mr Ashley, 39, to an attempted murder. In fact, Mr Ashley had only a little cannabis and an air pistol. It was true he had killed a man, but by a punch in a pub fight.

When PC Christopher Sherwood found himself outside Mr Ashley's door at 4.20am he was not in possession of the full facts. As he saw a figure coming towards him he fired. At the Old Bailey earlier this year, murder and manslaughter charges against PC Sherwood were thrown out because it could not be disproved that he honestly believed that his life was in danger and that he acted in self-defence.

But PC Sherwood had not been the only officer whose role in the shooting had been called into question. The PCA-supervised Kent police inquiry into the raid had found the failings went right to the top.

The Kent investigation, led by Barbara Wilding – now a Deputy Assistant Commissioner at the Met – stated: "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the conduct of this firearms operation and the management of the related issues, together, represented a complete corporate failure in duty to society." Three commanders in the operation were also criminally charged, with the offence of misfeasance in public office, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Meanwhile, a separate investigation was launched into the role in the operation of the highest echelons of Sussex Police. Led by the Chief Constable of the neighbouring Hampshire force, Sir John Hoddinott, it was to produce a damning critique of Mr Whitehouse's actions. Its findings went to the Sussex Police Authority, who decided that Mr Whitehouse should be issued with "strong written advice", which was to "remain confidential". After being suspended for three weeks, the Chief Constable was reinstated.

The authority's chairman, Ken Bodfish, issued a statement in April 1999, saying: "The authority decided that it is in the interests of the people of Sussex and of the force that Paul Whitehouse should resume his office of Chief Constable. Mr Whitehouse will be expected to continue to provide the leadership of the force which will be necessary in the challenging times ahead."

Mr Whitehouse's deputy, Mark Jordan, was told he remained suspended. More than three years after the shooting, he has not been reinstated and faces disciplinary proceedings.

In the aftermath of the case, Mr Whitehouse spoke out again in defence of the operation. "What has at last been established after 40 long months is that tragic though this incident was, it was not a crime." In clearing the officers, the judge noted that Sussex Police bore a "heavy burden" for Mr Ashley's death. The collapse of the criminal case finally brought the two-year-old Hoddinott report into the public domain.

Sir John found that Mr Whitehouse had "wilfully failed to tell the truth as he knew it ... without reasonable excuse or justification". It was two weeks before the general election and with Mr Ashley's family calling for a public inquiry, the Home Secretary in waiting, David Blunkett, was following the case with interest. Whether he had decided Mr Whitehouse was unfit for his post by then is unclear. But the police chief made his mind up for him.

To the shock of the new Home Secretary, Mr Whitehouse announced last week that two of the officers – Kevin French and Christopher Siggs – involved in the case should now receive the promotions that had been put on hold while they faced charges. The decision, which included a backdated pay rise, came in spite of pending disciplinary hearings.

The act was seen as yet another gesture of defiance by Mr Whitehouse in support of the bungled raid.

The outraged Home Secretary said on Monday: "The shooting incident, the issues which emerged during the subsequent investigations and criminal proceedings, the reasons for the discontinuance of the trial, and the promotion of two officers who may yet face disciplinary proceedings have given rise to grave public concern."

Mr Blunkett suggested that the police authority might consider using its powers "to require the Chief Constable to step down".

By yesterday morning, Mr Whitehouse had resigned.

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