Mary Dejevsky: Don't treat the police like criminals

We must remember what the atmosphere was like on the day Mr de Menezes died
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Jean Charles de Menezes should not have died. Full stop; no equivocation. His immigration status, his employment status, his previous dealings – if any – with the authorities, have absolutely no bearing on that judgment. He had no links with terrorism; there was no hint of the merest flirtation with jihadism. The Brazilian electrician should not have met his death at Stockwell Tube station that fateful day.

But to insist so categorically that his death was wrong does not automatically make the police concerned – Officers C12 and C2 – into criminals. They are victims in this sorry saga, second only to Mr de Menezes himself. As was clear from his anguish under questioning, Officer C12 will be marked for the rest of his life by the moment he opened fire. The officers' plight has been neglected.

Ever since the Metropolitan Police admitted, at first haltingly, then with hangdog shame, that members of its crack firearms squad had pumped bullets into body of an innocent man, there has been an unseemly clamour first to assign blame and then to exact retribution. The long deliberations of the inquest jury, which finally pronounced an open verdict yesterday, constitute the latest stage in that unhappy process.

The jurors were clearly uncomfortable with the coroner's instruction that the verdict of "unlawful killing" was not open to them. Even his invitation to return with a majority verdict did not produce an immediate decision. The delay suggests a degree of rebellion in the jury room that went beyond the two eventual dissenters.

The daily presence in the court of members of the de Menezes family, conducting themselves – it was reported – with eminent dignity and restraint, was a constant reminder of the human tragedy. The jury's evident reluctance not to point the finger at the police is understandable. A family had patently been wronged.

It must be hoped that the de Menezes family will now, at last, be allowed to mourn in peace. Financial compensation provides scant consolation, but the family has, rightly, been compensated, and not ungenerously. It has also been given ample opportunity to present its point of view to a British public that has – again rightly – been sympathetic to a fault.

But I, for one, hope that the inquest into Jean Charles's death will be the last time Officers C12 and C2 find themselves in the dock, either as witnesses or defendants. There is responsibility to be assigned for what happened that day, but it is not criminal, and it is certainly not theirs. The more time separates us from the events of July 2005, the more the armed officers who arrived at Stockwell Tube station resemble a trigger-happy group of Keystone Cops. But we forget the atmosphere not just of that month, but of that particular day.

The bombings of 7 July, which had shattered London's joy at the Olympic decision the previous day, had killed 52 people and injured many times more. But London had responded with truly extraordinary resilience and good sense. Those who alluded to the Blitz spirit had a point. Although very many things went wrong that day, including poor co-ordination of the emergency services and inadequate communications underground, there was a collective can-do spirit and sense of solidarity that amazed not only outsiders, but also our own Government.

The response to the – failed – bomb attacks two weeks later was a little different. Real fear took hold – fear that such attacks could become a permanent feature of London life. What is more, the would-be perpetrators were on the loose. They could be anywhere, probably on the transport network and ready to strike again. That is the context, and the near-panicked atmosphere, in which Mr de Menezes was tracked from his home, through Brixton, to the train waiting at Stockwell Tube station, and killed.

The police fully believed they were following a would-be suicide bomber. That is what they had been told by those whose job it was to know. They understood that such a man would be frustrated, desperate and driven. For the firearms officers concerned it was less a matter of self-defence than preventing another atrocity at another London station.

Did Officer C12 shout "armed police" before he fired? The jury found that he did not. But should he have identified himself at that point? Might he not have triggered the very attack he was sworn to pre-empt? On that day, in those circumstances, members of the firearms squad at Stockwell Tube station had no option but to do what they did, when they did it. Thereafter, they went from heroes to villains in little more than 24 hours.

Which is not to say there were no mistakes. Jean Charles de Menezes's death was the cumulative result of a whole chain of errors, some big and some – such as the poor quality of the real suspect's ID photo – pitifully small. In retrospect, you can track the mounting inevitability of Mr de Menezes's death, from surveillance failings, to the delay the firearms squad experienced in obtaining its guns, to flawed communications between the different teams, and the failure (of anyone) to apprehend the suspect before he reached the station. Challenging a suspected terrorist in a relatively quiet street is one thing; risking a bomb blast inside a Tube station at rush hour is quite another.

There is culpability here, and plenty of it. Inquiries, and the 2007 trial of the Met for health and safety violations, have identified much that could, and should, have been done differently. The Independent Police Complaints Commission found that the then Met Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, tried to prevent its investigation. Some of those in the chain of command at Scotland Yard that day have got off lightly. There seems to have been a casual and, at times, confused approach to responsibility, at very least.

There are occasions, though, when no single person is to blame for something that is grievously, tragically, unjust. This is one. Jean-Charles de Menezes was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. May he rest in peace. The consciences of Officers C12 and C2 should be clear.