|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Gun crime: the death of Jean Charles
THE KILLING of Jean Charles de Menezes on 22 July 2005 was a brutal act committed by hyped-up, out of control police officers, the result of a catalogue of error and incompetence. That was the conclusion of the Old Bailey trial at the end of October, and of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report in early November.
What difference it makes to the operations of the Metropolitan police will be negligible, however, as demonstrated by the dismissive reaction to the verdict by Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair. Despite severe criticism and mounting pressure, Blair refuses to resign – backed to the hilt by the New Labour government and Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, who denounced the court ruling as "disastrous".
For the family of the 27-year-old Brazilian electrician the long fight for justice continues. They are now pushing for a verdict of unlawful death at the inquest due in 2008, hoping that opens the way to sue the Met and charge individual officers with manslaughter. But the wheels of ‘British justice’ turn slowly, especially for those taking on state institutions.
The jury at the Old Bailey found the Metropolitan police guilty of "catastrophic" errors leading to the shooting dead of Jean Charles at Stockwell tube station, south London. The Met was fined £175,000 and ordered to pay £385,000 costs for exposing the public to unnecessary risk under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The penalty will be paid out of taxpayers’ money! Individuals were not held responsible for their actions when Jean Charles was killed. The IPCC report had been drawn up 18 months previously, its publication delayed pending the court decision.
Initially, Ian Blair tried to stop the IPCC investigation taking place – in contravention of the Police (Complaints and Misconduct) Regulations 2004. This states that incidents involving death or serious injury have to be referred to the IPCC "as soon as possible but no later than a day after" the incident. Blair instructed officers to deny the IPCC access to the investigation scene. The shooting was not referred until the afternoon of 25 July, by which time police logs had been altered.
On 22 July 2005, the police were searching for the people who had tried but failed to detonate rucksack bombs on the underground the day before. This was also two weeks after the 7/7 bombings which killed 52 and injured 750 on London buses and tubes. Around 04.30 a gym card for a suspect, Hussein Osman, was found at the scene of the botched attack at Shepherd’s Bush tube. This gave his address as Scotia Road, Tulse Hill, south London, the same block in which Jean Charles lived.
Jean Charles was seen leaving the flats at 09.33. The surveillance officer was urinating at the time so took no direct action. Jean Charles caught a bus from Tulse Hill to Brixton tube. As the station was closed, he got back on a bus to Stockwell. The IPCC reports an "inexplicable" failure to stop Jean Charles on his 30-minute journey – during which the police also failed to positively identify the ‘suspect’. Doubts about Jean Charles’s identity (ie that he was not Osman) were not passed on to central command.
Jean Charles picked up a free newspaper at Stockwell tube, put his ticket through the barriers to gain entrance, and headed down the escalators. There was a dizzying series of command and countermand. Commander Cressida Dick had told surveillance teams that the ‘suspect’ must not be allowed to go underground, but it was unclear who would stop him, firearms or surveillance officers. Some officers thought the command ‘stop’ simply meant kill.
At 10.07 the log records Dick saying "everything alright upstairs, don’t know what is happening downstairs". The IPCC fills in the details: "Charlie 2 ran forward and reached over the top of ‘Ivor’ [surveillance officer pinning Jean Charles down] shouting ‘armed police’. He held his gun to Mr de Menezes’ head and fired… Charlie 12 was also firing. Charlie 2 cleared a blockage in his gun and continued firing until he was certain that the threat had been eliminated". (Daily Telegraph, 9 November) Seven shots were fired, with five going into Jean Charles’s head, one into his shoulder.
The IPCC report raises the main contradiction: "If they thought he might have a bomb, why was he allowed time to get on a bus and then on a tube? If they thought he didn’t have a bomb, why did they shoot him?" (Daily Telegraph, 9 November)
No evidence at the trial was heard from the officers who shot Jean Charles or from passenger witnesses. From their statements, however, not one of the 17 members of the public in the train carriage recalled hearing the officers shout "armed police". All eight officers present said they had.
Blair was told by assistant commissioner, Andy Hayman, that a man believed to be a 21 July suspect had been shot. By early afternoon, information from Jean Charles’s phone and wallet was passed to Scotland Yard. Blair’s staff officers were informed. The rumour that an innocent Brazilian had been killed began to circulate. The IPCC noted that police at Lord’s cricket ground had heard there had been a "terrible mistake".
Incredibly, it appears that Blair was left "almost totally uninformed". Blair’s own vindication, in fact, is that he had no idea what was going on – in the organisation he is supposed to lead. Dick, too, is totally unrepentant, saying that she would do the same again. Earlier this year she was promoted from commander to the £130,000-a-year rank of deputy assistant commissioner.
At 15.39 Blair told a press conference that the shooting was "directly linked to the ongoing and expanding anti-terrorist operation". He said: "I understand the man was challenged and refused to obey". Both untrue.
The police claimed that Jean Charles fled from officers when challenged at the station, that he hurdled a ticket barrier to get away, that he was wearing a bulky coat. All false. A photo of Jean Charles was doctored to make him look more like the real suspect, Osman. This cynical smear campaign was repeated in the Old Bailey trial.
Eyewitnesses to the shooting were advised not to meet or communicate, or talk to the press. This ensured that only the police’s side of the story was presented. Eyewitnesses made their statements straight away. Police officers were allowed to return to base, rest and confer, drawing up their notes together.
The 18.44 police press release stated that it was "not yet clear" whether the shot man was one of the 21 July bombers, although anti-terrorism officers no longer believed it. Blair was not told until 10.15 the next morning. On 23 July at 16.52 the Met finally told the media that Jean Charles was not connected to the 21 July attacks.
On 7 November, Blair received a vote of no confidence by the London Assembly – 15 votes to eight – the Tories and Lib Dems voting against Blair, Labour and the Greens backing him. "Within minutes of the London Assembly passing its motion calling on the Met commissioner to be sacked, the mayor’s officials were handing journalists a strongly worded statement denigrating the assembly and saying the vote had merely handed a propaganda victory to the terrorists". (London Evening Standard, 13 November)
The support for Blair, which reaches the highest level of government, is reward for his defence of New Labour policies. In April 2005, during a general election campaign, Blair publicly endorsed New Labour’s national identity card scheme. A few months later he lobbied for the government’s proposal for 90-day detention of terrorist suspects. In the run-up to the May 2006 London borough elections, the ‘safer neighbourhood’ initiative was highlighted.
Of course, the Met is not accountable to elected bodies, and clearly believes it can act with impunity. If it was not for courageous and determined campaigns for justice, such as by the de Menezes family, many police outrages would remain hidden. The arrogance displayed by senior police officers, especially Blair and Dick, has shocked many people. An editorial appeared in the London Evening Standard (2 November), perhaps summing up their views: "The number of grave police failings during that operation was 19 – and the Met admitted none of them. In these circumstances, the public will hardly be satisfied by Sir Ian’s promise that ‘lessons will be learned’ from the affair".
The gunning down of Jean Charles de Menezes is a warning of the need to resist calls to boost state powers in the ‘war on terror’. Gordon Brown wants to double today’s 28-day limit on holding terror suspects without charge – when Tony Blair came to power in 1997 the maximum was two days. It has also opened people’s eyes to the real role of the police, as a defender of the rich and powerful in society.