An Open and shut verdict

An open verdict, in an inquest, is supposed to be suggestive of unclarity. Yet this open verdict seems to be very clear indeed. Either Jean Charles de Menezes was lawfully killed, or he was not. The jury decided that he was not. Whether they would have gone further and decided that the killing was definitely unlawful is, I suppose, something we shall never know. But given the extraordinarily prejudicial summing up of the Coroner, Mr Justice Wright - who virtually instructed the jury to bring in a verdict of lawful killing - their refusal to be party to a traditional Establishment stitch-up is heartening.

Like many other people, I followed the progress of the inquest with increasing horror. The manner of Jean Charles's impromptu execution, a literal overkill, and the complacent and arse-covering response of the Metropolitan police, were sufficiently evident even before the long-delayed inquest began sitting. But even so the facts revealed in this case were shocking in the extreme. That the firearms officers were of the belief that de Menezes had been identified as a terrorist suspect may, perhaps, be allowed. Even so, the inquest revealed no reasonable grounds for their professed belief that he posed an imminent danger. They would seem to have put two pieces of information together - the fact that de Menezes was being followed by the police, and the fact that they, as firearms officers, had been dispatched to the scene - and concluded that they were under orders to kill him. But being under orders, since the Nuremburg war crimes trials, has been no defence; at least it is supposed to be no defence. However much incompetence among the higher police command may have led to the confusion, the facts on the ground were unambiguous: here was someone who may have been a suspect but who had given no indication that he was about to detonate a bomb. Yet no evidence was produced to suggest that the officers ever considered any other course of action. Given the awesome responsibilities that are laid upon police officers entrusted with guns, and the need for cool heads and rational consideration that the job entails, this is alarming.

Equally alarming, for me, is the tendency to argue from the undoubted bravery and less undoubted (but widely assumed) expertise of the firearms officers to excuse their actions. The Telegraph's Philip Johnston, for example, blogs today that

It is right that no blame should attach to the firearms officers who killed him. The argument over whether they identified themselves or not is somewhat redundant since they believed he was about to detonate a bomb and had no option but to shoot to kill. They acted bravely and deserve to be praised, not vilified.

But honest belief is not an excuse for killing a man if the belief is not reasonable or justified. And abundant evidence was offered in this inquest that it was not.

Then there is the conflict of evidence. The police - who had an opportunity to compare notes before submitting their evidence - claimed that a clear warning had been given before the fatal shots were fired. The passengers on the tube train - who do not seem to have had the advantage of conferring - were agreed that there was not. That might not, in itself, amount to unlawful killing. But it surely does raise serious questions about the truthfulness of the police account. Indeed, it ought to lead to charges being laid against the officers for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. It seems unlikely, though, that the police will be held to account - any more than they will be held to account for the unnecessary shooting of Mark Saunders. Holding police officers - or, indeed, any individual - to blame is increasingly not the British way. Instead, blame must be dispersed until, like a homeopathic remedy, it has been so diluted that there's none left.

One idea that, I hope, this inquest will put to rest is that Jean Charles de Menezes was a victim of terrorism - even, as the unmissed Sir Ian Blair claimed - the 53rd victim of the 7/7 London bombers. He was the victim of police officers who, while they may not have wished to kill an innocent man, were insufficiently attuned to the probability that he might not be armed. As the testimony of the independent witnesses made clear, he was neither behaving nor was he dressed like a man about to detonate a bomb. This would have remained the case (though the criticism of the police would be much more muted) even if he had been correctly identified as a suspect. The protocols under which the firearms officers acted, codenamed Operation Kratos, were designed in secret with advice from Israeli police at a time when suicide bombings were an almost daily occurrence on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But, even in the fractured circumstances that existed in July 2005, London is not Jerusalem; the statistical possibility that Jean Charles de Menezes was a suicide bomber therefore very low. Operation Kratos, which has no legal standing and has never been scrutinised by Parliament, is apparently still in being. If it is remains the basis for police action, then a similar tragedy may happen again. This, indeed, was admitted by police, including the fame-hungry Brian Paddick, during the inquest. Worryingly, they seemed to believe that it was a price worth paying. It isn't.

Another frequently expressed view is that Jean Charles would have, statistically, been at a much higher danger of being killed by the police had he stayed in Brazil. That is true. It is also true that he would have been at greater danger from the police in the United States, or some European countries, or Russia. True, but irrelevant. It used to be the chief glory of the British police that they were citizens in uniform rather than an armed wing of the state; that our police were, by and large, unarmed; and that the police were as accountable as anyone else before the law. Deaths like that of Mr De Menezes might happen here less often than in Brazil, but that's not good enough. Deaths like his should NEVER happen here.


Anonymous said…
At first I give the police the benefit of the doubt, no reason not to, but the facts of the case as they have been revealed have truly made me ashamed of my country.

Not only were the facts of the close quarter shooting of this man, no as advertised their seems to me a deliberate conspiracy to cover up the events, there is little doubt in my mind that the offices involved purged themselves.

The events of JCs were a complete balls up, the "investigation" afterwords was a complete stitch up, and the inquiry was a complete set up, that at least did not go to HMGs and the Police plan, like the sad events at stockwell.

No wonder the coward Blair headed for the exit.
valdemar said…
Check out this news item in which SAS men express concern about 'gung ho' police firearms officers. This is in 2005, years after the shooting. Worrying.

'One of the soldiers said: “When the tension starts to rise and the adrenaline is flowing, the ‘red mist’ seems to descend on armed police officers who become very trigger-happy. This has been shown time and again in training exercises.”

'The second soldier said: “We thought that police firearms officers were far more concerned with their personal image, dressing in body armour and looking ‘gung ho’, rather than their professional capabilities. I’m not surprised at the number of mistakes over the years.'
Anonymous said…
Excellent Heresiarch - again you speak for us all.

And Valdemar is straight to the point with that quote from the SAS guys - you can sometimes smell the aggression off cops with guns. I remember about seven or so years ago coming off the Glasgow plane and seeing two cops armed with those heckler thingies strutting about at the Tube entrance like cocks of the walk.

Just as a passer by, I would have said that neither of these guys were fit to carry automatic weapons, yet there they were. Their bosses clearly thought they were fit.
valdemar said…
It raises the question as to whether a national police force is needed, completely divorced from local/regional plods. That would bring problems of its own, of course, but at least confining use of lethal weapons to one force would make 'canteen culture' and macho bullshit a bit easier to curb. In theory, at least. Trouble is, a national police force would rightly stink of authoritarianism if the likes of Jacqui Smith suggested it.
Heresiarch said…
National police force? Please, no. During the Boris/Ian Blair contretemps, the Smith line was that the Met do indeed have "national responsibilities" for things like - yes, you've guessed it - terrorism. The de Menezes shooting was a terrible example of the way a national anti-terror unit thinks and operates.

We need more local control of the police, not less. But it should be genuine local control. At the moment the police are theoretically divided into regional forces, but in practice ACPO - a body with no official standing - have succeeded in imposing a national policing system in all but name. The result - well, look at the debate threads everywhere from the Telegraph to the Guardian. Public support for the police has collapsed among its natural supporters.
valdemar said…
I agree, H. Each local authority area should have its own police force (as it was originally). This would mean genuinely local coppers.

I can imagine the whingeing, though. It would be 'inefficient', and 'wasteful', as democracy always seems to be to those who prefer rule by edict.
Anonymous said…
Once again the British establishment get away with murder. It is not good enough that this case should now just be forgotten. There's a long history of police killings in this country - yet the list of those found guilty equals NIL.

I feel strongly for the de Menezes family, who must look at what has happened to them, the lies, the delays, the whitewash and wonder where is the justice. Was it Hugh Muir in the Guardian asking 'where is the hope?' - it's not hope it's JUSTICE. This just brings more shame on the UK - but the neo-fascist government and police authorities don't give a fuck.
Anonymous said…

according to the Guardian (alternativel known as Appeasement & Lethargy Unlimited), the police/security officers who shot Jean Charles are preparing to go back to work. Hear no evil, See no evil............
Stan Moss said…
"The day after de Menezes' death, a Met's official statement was still portraying a false version of the facts. "His clothing and behaviour added to [the surveillance officers'] suspicions". Scotland Yard initially claimed he wore a bulky jacket and jumped the barrier when police identified themselves and ordered him to stop. Still the day after the shooting Ian Blair was spreading the fable that de Menezes "challenged police and refused to obey orders before he was shot"
They knew they were talking rubbish, but they had no problem telling the press. This is what should be at the centre of the de Menezes' case. Because nobody doubts the pressure the police were under, nobody forgets the charged atmosphere of those days. But what's it got to do with lying"

Extract from "Open verdict? My arse" on Hagley Road to Ladywood
Edwin Greenwood said…
Restores (or more accurately replenishes) your faith in the jury system, dunnit?

I too have had the pleasure of serving on a jury which made it abundantly clear to the learned judge exactly where he could stuff his non-too-subtle indications that we should convict. Nothing as high-profile as this, just everyday Sarf London criminality where the evidence was tendentious and too inconclusive to safely convict. Basically TPTB were winging it. Nothing to make the 6 O'clock News but nevertheless a small, satisfying and most importantly cumulative blow for justice and common decency. Annoyed the Old Bill no end, too.

Remember Clive Ponting? And though some may accept the result with gritted teeth, Nick Griffin and Mark Collett? Jury trial -- the collective common sense of 12 random folk off the Clapham Omnibus -- is an institution we should take care to cherish.
Anonymous said…
Edwin, you are right, those guys are NOT fit to carry firearms in public.

Check the way they wave them about, pointing the muzzles (carelessly, rather than deliberately, but pointing them nonetheless) at everyone round about.

Check their hands - fingers INSIDE the trigger guards most of the time.

I feel nervous being anywhere near these guys.

And in any case, what exactly are they going to DO with a machine gun inside a crowded airport terminal? Re-enact Die-Hard?

The whole thing is absurd theatre, and dangerous with it, and should be stopped.
Anonymous said…
Anon - you are bang on about the police being issued with H&K MP5's - totally inappropriate in a busy area like an airport. I suspect it's more about show than anything else. Anyone recall the last time guns were fired inside an airport by the police?

I understand from a source in Manchester that there has been, since the London bombings, a secret increase in the number of officers routinely carrying guns nationally. I am told that the increase has been significant.

Yes the British police and the "specialist firearms" officer are a trigger happy liability.

Why wasn't Menezes' stopped the moment he left his house? Why was he permitted to get as far as a busy train if he was suspected to be packed with explosives? Call me conspiratorial (and the Met have already shown conclusive evidence of a conspiracy to cover up the facts of this case), but perhaps someone was hoping he would blow up a tube train, justifying further police state powers?

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