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     Volume 7 Issue 6 | February 8, 2008 |

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Food for Thought

A Case of Mistaken Identity, or Mistakes Every Step of the Way?

Farah Ghuznavi
(Part II)

Jean Charles de Menezes

After the verdict was announced in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes - a Brazilian electrician who was killed by the Metropolitan Police in London in the course of a botched counter-terrorism operation (when he was mistaken for a terrorist bomber) - it was declared that the police force was guilty of 19 “catastrophic errors” in the operation that led to his death. Given the considerable resources and energy that the police had invested in fighting the case, this was a scathing indictment of the Met.

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, found himself fighting for his job. But in the true fashion of politicians and public figures today, Sir Ian issued a robust defence of his record, and flatly refused to go, despite calls for his resignation from some quarters. Although some measures taken by the Commissioner had undoubtedly been beneficial for the Metropolitan Police, and his powerful supporters included the Mayor of London, a motion of no-confidence in his leadership was passed by the London Assembly by a vote of 15 to 8. And as his critics have pointed out, because the police force was found guilty of so many errors, basically the buck could have reasonably been expected to stop with the head of the organisation.

As such, Sir Ian should have taken his punishment like a man. Instead, he appeared to mislead the public by declaring on the day of de Menezes' death that the Brazilian man had been “a suspect” when he was completely innocent. Although a report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) accepted the Commissioner's assertion that he did not know a mistake had been made until 24 hours after the 7 shots were fired into de Menezes' head, it was hardly reassuring that the same report found Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman had “misled” senior officers by “failing to tell them that the dead man was not a bomber”!

Sir Ian also made a point of praising the bravery of the police on the day of the shooting, saying officers were involved in a “race against time” and had been “doing their best” to handle the threat posed by the failed suicide bombers the previous day. Clearly, their best was not nearly good enough…

Furthermore, any number of questions regarding the performance of the police remain (even beyond the inconsistencies and errors identified by the trial judge) for example, why did the two officers who shot de Menezes both maintain, in statements made 36 hours after the shooting, that he was wearing a “bulky” denim jacket (implying that he may have been hiding a bomb underneath his clothing) when in fact he was wearing a very ordinary denim jacket? Why did 8 police officers give statements that the words “armed police” were shouted as a warning to de Menezes, when none of the 17 civilian witnesses heard those words? These statements sound suspiciously like a co-ordinated cover-up by the officers present at the scene.

Nor was this type of inexplicable behaviour limited to the lower end of the food chain. Questions remain about how the police control room commanders formed the firm belief that de Menezes had been positively identified as Hussain Osman, a fugitive suicide bomber, when none of the surveillance officers pursuing him had given that confirmation. Particularly since the jury at the trial heard that at no point in the 34 minutes between the 27-year-old electrician leaving his home and the moment when he was shot did the surveillance officers believe that they had formally identified him as Osman!

Despite this, the logbook in the control room showed how in the space of four minutes, the police commander in charge of the operation first ordered the surveillance team to arrest the Brazilian, then directed that the firearms unit should carry out the arrest, then once again ordered the surveillance officers to do the job, finally barely a second later again instructing the firearms team to make the arrest after being told that they were at the Tube station.

Under the circumstances, it is quite understandable that the family of the victim was shocked by the recent ruling handed down by the IPCC that none of the senior officers who were in charge of the disastrous operation that led to the fatal shooting - including the police commander mentioned above will actually face disciplinary action for their conduct. Despite acknowledging that a series of "catastrophic errors" had taken place, investigators nevertheless decided that no one could be held personally responsible for the killing of an innocent man! Relatives of the Brazilian man described the decision of the IPCC not to recommend disciplinary proceedings against four senior officers as a "scandal", particularly since 11 other officers had already been cleared of any wrongdoing. Clearly, as Sir Ian's refusal to resign has already made clear, in this case the buck never stops, least of all with the person at the top.

Perhaps the most misleading aspect of the behaviour of the police in this case was their insistence that de Menezes had behaved in a strange fashion, the implication being that this contributed to subsequent events. The surveillance team claimed that de Menezes had appeared nervous, sending text messages and getting on and off buses. Apparently this suggested that he was a terror suspect, rather than simply being someone whose route to work involved taking a number of buses, and who was later discovered to have been texting a colleague to let him know that he would be late to work that day. At the trial, the defence lawyer stated that these factors explained why the Brazilian had allegedly behaved in an “aggressive and threatening manner” as armed police approached him in one of the carriages of an underground train. Perhaps the sight of armed officers approaching you when you haven't done anything would make most of us nervous?

In fact, as CCTV footage clearly showed, de Menezes had just picked up a morning newspaper and walked calmly through the Tube station in the moments before he was shot dead. There was no sign of guilt or nervousness in the footage that was shown at the trial, nor was he seen running or jumping over the ticket barriers as initial police statements had claimed. Perhaps those claims were just some of the many “mistakes” made by the police in their handling of this case. But the fact remains that no matter how many justifications are provided about the need for split-second action in order to avert potential disaster, and the inevitability that sometimes mistakes will be made, the spectacular failings of this particular police counter-terrorism effort beg the question of just how many mistakes can be made in the course of one operation!

In addition to all the unanswered questions (and a few suspicions too ugly to articulate), further developments since the trial have done little to restore public confidence in Sir Ian Blair or the force that he heads. A recent report from the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), was scathing in its criticism of Sir Ian when it was discovered that he had attempted to block its investigators from beginning an inquiry into de Menezes' shooting, because he wanted to ensure that the anti-terrorist operation to find the failed bombers who had attacked London on July 21st was unimpeded. The Chairman of the IPCC confirmed this, saying, “The Commissioner attempted to prevent us carrying out an investigation” (UK Independent).

And the pressure on Sir Ian has only intensified in recent days, after it was revealed that an internal inquiry is looking into allegations that six million pounds in expenses has gone missing from the Metropolitan Police coffers over the past three or four years. Detectives are alleged to have paid for holidays, jewellery and lifestyle essentials such as flat-screen televisions on American Express credit cards issued by the force in order to book accommodation and flights during police investigations.

As a final bitter twist to the story, Scotland Yard has confirmed that two detectives have been arrested on suspicion of theft they are believed to be members of the SO15 counter-terrorism squad. So all in all, the Metropolitan Police record on counter-terrorist activities leaves a lot to be desired…


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