Hugh McManners: The truth about our 'shoot-to-kill' policy

Having made the split-second judgement to fire, the rest is relatively straightforward
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The Independent Online

Earlier last week, the current Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair had attempted to ameliorate the obvious bad impression created by the phrase "shoot to kill" by describing police firearms policy as being "shoot to kill in order-to protect". He too argued that what is known in the trade as the "headshot" was the only way of ensuring the bomb was not detonated, and completed his statement by saying "I think we are comfortable the policy is right, but these are fantastically difficult times".

Well, I don't believe that anybody likely to have to double-tap bullets into people's heads from a few feet away, is going to be "comfortable" with the idea, whether it's to protect the innocent, kill bombers - or both. Individual police officers are under terrible strain when making these instantaneous decisions, particularly knowing that they cannot hide behind "orders" should innocent people be injured or killed. Like any other citizen, they face investigation, court action and possibly imprisonment.

Having made the split-second judgement to fire, the rest is relatively straightforward. Two double-taps with one more for luck at close range, hold down the twitching body to ensure no reflex actions that might detonate a device, then wipe away the worst of the blood, bone fragments, snot and other body fluids that the "utter destruction" of a brain, guilty or innocent, visits upon those close to the action. Sir Ian may be "comfortable" with the policy, but that sort of complacent-sounding response is not how they see things on the front line - especially when an innocent man has been killed in this way.

There is actually no "Shoot-to-Kill" policy. Police firearms rules have not changed for the past two decades. The phrase itself dates back to the high days of violence in Northern Ireland, when the Army's Skill-At-Arms corps decided to give its recruit shooting-tuition programme a sexy name - which was then taken up by various factions as "evidence" of a security forces' campaign to take out known terrorists. Both phrase and fiction have flourished in the media over the decades, emerging today as a "new shoot-to-kill" policy.

In the real "shoot-to-kill" programme, recruits are taught to aim at the centre of the largest part of the target - which in humans is the torso - to give the best chance of achieving some kind of hit. The bull's-eye is located at the lowest point of the sternum.

Every one of the firearms used by security forces will kill if a bull's-eye is scored on a living target. No military or police shooter ever aims off; every shot is intended to kill. Security force firearms officers do not open fire unless they believe their lives or the lives of the public are in danger - and they shoot to kill. And always have done. It's harder to hit a head than a torso, and the jaw and face take up a large portion of the target, making a headshot less likely to kill. But as suicide bombers could possibly detonate when hit, it makes sense to try for the more difficult headshot - if that is possible.

British security forces are the world leaders when it comes to counter-terrorism. Officers routinely visit other countries to keep up to date in the techniques being used, and more commonly to be quizzed by those countries in the procedures we are developing for our own use. We should expect visits to countries experiencing suicide bombers to be a matter of routine, as with the constant reappraisal of all techniques being used. There could never be any question (as has been implied) of our forces thus becoming "like" the Israelis, Sri Lankans or anybody else as a result of such visits.

The "new policy" of head-shooting suspected bombers is neither a policy nor an order - nor is it new. Let's drop this "shoot-to-kill" nonsense. Rather than woolly self-justifications that the already onside public do not need, chief constables might like to advise exactly how we should react when armed police need to know what we're carrying in our backpacks.

The writer is a former British Army special forces officer