Leading article: Reckless, incompetent and lethal policing

The anger and frustration of the de Menezes family are perfectly justified

Saturday 13 December 2008 01:00

The jury at the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes was forbidden by the coroner to rule that this was a case of unlawful killing by the Metropolitan Police.

That, in the view of the legal team representing the Brazilian electrician, meant that the possibility of justice was denied even before the jury returned its verdict. Despite this, the conclusions of the 10 jurors yesterday could scarcely have been more damning of the conduct of the police, both during this disgraceful affair and subsequently. The open verdict returned by the jury represents an emphatic rejection of the police case that Mr de Menezes was lawfully killed.

The jury's interpretation of what happened on the stationary Tube train at Stockwell station thee and a half years ago is disturbing. The jurors said they did not believe officers had shouted "armed police" before opening fire on Mr de Menezes, despite claims from those involved that they had given such a warning. None of the witnesses on that train recalled the officers identifying themselves. The jury also agreed that, while Mr de Menezes had stood up before being shot, he did not move towards the officers in a threatening manner; again a contradiction of the testimony offered by the police.

What we have, therefore, is a picture of armed police officers bursting on to a train and, without warning or provocation, shooting an innocent man seven times in the head and neck. The other inescapable implication of the jurors' verdict is that these same police officers dissembled to the inquest.

Yet this is just the beginning of the scandal. The jury also found that serious police operational failings contributed to the death Mr de Menezes. It emerged in the course of the inquest that the surveillance operation was a shambles. Officers watching the suspect's residence were not in possession of a decent photograph of the target. The officer closest to the flat was relieving himself as Mr de Menezes left the property. The inquest also heard that one surveillance team member had altered his log to say that he had not positively identified the subject as the bomber, though his original entry indicated the opposite.

There was also a fatal breakdown in communication between surveillance officers, the firearms team and the command office at Scotland Yard. One of the firearms officers told the jury he heard surveillance officers positively identify the suspect over the radio. The surveillance officer in question contradicted this in court.

The jury identified all these cock-ups as contributory factors to the disaster. It also rejected the argument of the police that the behaviour of Mr de Menezes and the general difficulty in providing a positive identification in time contributed to the killing. According to the jury, the police could, and should, have done better. There are no excuses.

The anger the de Menezes family feels towards the Metropolitan Police is justified; so is their frustration with the British legal establishment. The rest of us should be deeply concerned too. We now know, beyond any doubt, that Mr de Menezes was merely going about his daily business, giving no cause for suspicion, when he was killed. The disturbing reality is that he could have been any one of us.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, yesterday argued that the case "reminds us of the extremely demanding circumstances under which the police work to protect us from further terrorist attack". Actually, what the case reminds us of is the fact that the no police firearms officer has been convicted for shooting a member of the public in the past 15 years, despite some 30 fatalities, many of them in questionable circumstances. It reminds us that the police saw fit to introduce the Operation Kratos guidelines for dealing with suspected suicide bombers (shots to the head and no verbal warning) in secret. There was no public consultation or political consent. We found out about this radical change in operating procedure only when it had claimed its first innocent casualty in the form of Mr de Menezes.

As our politicians are fond of telling us, we are policed by consent in this country. Yet that consent has been stretched dangerously thin in recent years. There is an increasing suspicion of the police among the public and the sense that they are not truly accountable is growing. The killing of Jean Charles de Menezes and the disgraceful behaviour of the police in its wake have merely alienated us further from those who are charged with upholding our safety.

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