There were those yesterday suggesting that the death of the Brazilian electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes, showed that we now have a trigger-happy police force. All the evidence points in the opposite direction. The number of times the British police have fired guns in recent years is, thankfully, minute. Those of our police officers trained in the use of firearms appear to be controlled and professional. While the nation will extend its sincere condolences to Mr de Menezes' family, it will also feel for the policeman who had to make the decision with only seconds to weigh up the risks. It will also earnestly desire that he should not be made a scapegoat.
That does not mean there are not serious questions to be asked about the police conduct of the incident - but they lie not so much with the officer who pulled the trigger as with the quality of the intelligence on which he acted.
It seems clear now that there was something in the bag of the bomber whose device failed to explode on the Underground near the Oval last week that linked him to the house in which Mr de Menezes lived. A surveillance team went there to stake out the building, which contained a number of flats. When a man with a foreign appearance left, the police followed him. He was not one of the four suspected bombers, but he might have been an accomplice. The man jumped on a bus. The first question which must be answered is why was he allowed on it? Since, in both London bombings, devices were left on buses as well as Tubes why was the man, if he was so suspect, not intercepted at this point?
As the bus headed towards Stockwell, the surveillance officers called in the SO19 firearms unit to make "a hard stop". Why did they not succeed in that? How was the man allowed to vault over the barrier and run down an escalator? Why was he not shot there? Why when he boarded a train, and was held down by two officers, was it necessary for the third officer to shoot him dead?
We may suspect we know the answers to some of these questions. The British police have taken advice from their counterparts in Sri Lanka and Israel and learnt that a suicide bomber must be incapacitated completely to prevent him setting off his bomb. The only sure way to do that is to knock out the central nervous system. If that means blowing out his brains, that is horrible but necessary.
There are other questions. Why was Mr de Menezes wearing a padded jacket, which the police thought hid a bomb? Did these plainclothes officers identify themselves as policemen to him, as policy would require? Or did the unfortunate victim only see a group of men brandishing guns and screaming, and run away instinctively?
It is important to wait for the full facts to emerge and not to rush to judgement. But one thing is already clear. This shooting has unhappily taken the focus away from the hunt for the four would-be bombers who are still at large. The authorities must perversely be thankful that the man who was mistakenly shot wasn't a god-fearing British Asian family man. For that could have prompted a less co-operative attitude towards the police among Muslims. Tragic though this incident is, it should divert no section of our society from assisting in the vital task of providing the intelligence which could lead to finding the bombers and ending this menace.Reuse content