Leading article: Incompetence under fire

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Whatever the the jury had decided in the case of Mark Saunders, the London barrister shot dead by the Metropolitan Police, it would have been incontrovertibly clear that it was not handled well and that a number of changes are needed in the way the police respond in such situations.

It must be said that this was a difficult and dangerous case. Mr Saunders was an alcoholic who had battled with depression. He had been drinking heavily and had fired a shotgun through the window of his Chelsea home which for five hours was surrounded by police marksmen. But it was not inevitable that the drunken barrister, who had been hanging out of his kitchen window waving a shotgun at police, needed to die in a volley of shots fired by seven police marksmen.

The police command structure at the incident theoretically followed best practice. But it was plunged into chaos because the firearms tactical adviser delegated some of his duties to another officer without telling the superintendent in overall charge. This led to confusion among the 59 firearms officers carrying 100 guns at the scene – whose very number seems something of an over-reaction. As a result, the commanding officer was not told that Mr Saunders had held up notes to police and waved his mobile phone and shouted: "I can't hear". Nor was he told that the barrister had appeared to put his shotgun in his mouth.

That was not all. He was not informed that Mr Saunders had dialled 999, nor that the barrister's wife, Elizabeth, had been asked to switch off her mobile phone and was thus unable to receive the text message her husband sent before he died. The superintendent had no direct communication with the officer to whom the firearms tactical adviser had delegated some duties.

The coroner at the inquest spoke of a "lack of clarity" in police communications. This is a considerable understatement. The Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, has insisted that the police command structure at the incident was adequate, and a review for the Independent Police Complaints Commission has concluded that the Met response was "reasonable and proportionate". These cannot be acceptable findings, given the detail that the inquest has uncovered. We have been here before, with the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. Public confidence in the capital's police has again been shaken. Platitudinous reassurances from police chiefs are not an adequate response.

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