Leading article: Incompetence, cynicism and a misguided cover-up

Click to follow

On that day, though, plenty of people were prepared to give the Met the benefit of the doubt. It was the day after the second set of London bombings, and it was feared there could be more. The city was on edge; the police were, rightly, on the highest level of alert, and they were felt to have acquitted themselves creditably after the first bombings two weeks before.

The Met's Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, chose to give details of the Stockwell operation himself, supplying justification and colourful details. It was, he said, "directly linked" to the terrorist attacks on London. The dead man had been under surveillance because he had come out of a building that was, itself, under observation. His dress and demeanour had added to suspicions.

Within 24 hours, the police had to admit that they had made a tragic error. The dead man was a Brazilian electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes, harmlessly going about his business. Public unease turned to shock. Yet there was still residual sympathy for the police. How were officers supposed to deal with a suicide bomber who might blow himself up, and everyone in the vicinity, if tackled? And the Met stood by the details that had seemed to vindicate their suspicion: the victim had tried to flee, vaulting the ticket barrier; he had refused to surrender. He had been overdressed for the season.

Less than four weeks on, it turns out that only two of the details the police had given to justify their action bore the slightest relation to the truth. The building that Mr de Menezes emerged from was indeed under observation. And the operation was "directly linked" to the attempted terrorist attacks. Pretty much everything else Sir Ian and the Met said in their defence turns out to have been wrong.

The leaked papers show that this was a disastrously botched operation from start to finish: from the failure of the surveillance team to capture Mr de Menezes on video as he came out of his flat to the tardiness of the firearms squad in not arriving in time to apprehend him before he boarded the train. Still more shamefully, were that possible, it turns out that all those telling little details - the vaulted barrier, the furtive run for the train, the heavy jacket - were just not true. They were, at best, misapprehensions, at worst inventions, which the Met has kept in circulation until now. In fact, the investigation found, Mr de Menezes had dressed, and behaved, with an almost startling normality.

What we have here is not just a catastrophic example of police incompetence, but an apparently calculated and cynical effort on the part of the Met to disguise it. With hindsight, it is possible to divine in Sir Ian Blair's earliest statements some ultra-careful phrasing which verges on mendacity. The impression given was that, even if the dead man was not a terrorist, the actions of the police were fully justified. Subsequent Met tips to the media were in the same vein.

This would be a disgraceful way for our senior law enforcers to behave at any time. At this particular time, it is a scandal. After the bombings and attempted bombings in London, the police have rightly called for heightened vigilance. They need the cooperation of the public. But such cooperation is unlikely to be forthcoming unless their word carries conviction. This was Sir Ian Blair's first real test as Commissioner of the Met; he has been found sadly wanting.