Home » Apologies for everything » Police shootings: lawful, or just awful?

Police shootings: lawful, or just awful?

How far should policing go, to keep law-abiding citizens safe on the streets?

Should it, for instance, be regarded as acceptable that any armed-response police officer can kill at will? Of course not: he or she has to have due cause to believe that their own or another person’s life is in imminent danger from a suspect, or receive a direct order from a superior officer, before they are allowed to open fire. It is a principle of British justice that you are innocent until proven guilty, and I’m proud to say we abolished the death penalty for murder in 1965. (You also have a right to a fair trial by a jury of your peers, whatever heinous crime you are accused of.)

So, why would a police officer deliberately ‘execute’ an unarmed suspect in public? It’s illogical. It would be murder. There’s no reason.

Surely, then, it must automatically follow that when a well-trained armed-response officer does open fire, and kills a suspect, it is because they genuinely believed that there was an imminent danger to themselves and others. This is possibly why, despite a number of high-profile cases in which perfectly innocent people have been shot and sometimes killed by the police, no UK police firearms officer has ever been convicted of unlawfully killing a suspect. In every case, the jury has given the police marksman the benefit of the doubt, presumably as it is difficult to prove that someone with a duty to protect the public did not have a valid reason for carrying out an action with such drastic consequences for a person’s life.

In the case of Mark Duggan, an inquest jury has produced a controversial verdict. Here is a young man, allegedly acting as a courier for a nasty and violent criminal gang. An informant tells the police that Duggan is about to collect a gun and deliver it to the gang. Armed police set up a trap and stop a minicab. Duggan gets out as instructed and puts his hands in the air – according to the one witness who actually saw the incident clearly – and is immediately shot twice and dies at the scene. The police put out contradictory statements: Duggan was carrying a gun, wrapped in a sock (the witness says Duggan had a mobile phone in his hand). Duggan fired and wounded an officer (actually, the officer was hit by a ricochet from a shot fired from a police gun). And the police do not bother to inform Duggan’s family until they hear about it on the news. Five days of riots, arson, looting and further deaths ensue.

But there is a mystery: after Duggan has been shot, no-one can find his alleged gun until one turns up later in the grass verge, 20 feet away from the shooting. How did it get there?

Press reports the following day – we name the Daily Telegraph, a notorious right-wing source – claimed that Duggan, a ‘well-known gangster’, was armed, had opened fire first, and that a police officer’s life had been saved only because the bullet had struck his radio. It was a big, fat lie. Why do the police do this, make up stories to throw-off any possible line of enquiry in the media that might create doubt in the public mind? Can juries that are eventually constituted to decide on these cases really be impartial after being fed a load of panic-laden Scotland Yard PR guff? Well, it doesn’t matter, because in these cases, juries almost invariably move to acquit.

By a majority of 9 to 1, then, the 10-man jury finds that Duggan has in all probability thrown the gun 0ut of the window as the car is stopped and the police close in. Therefore he was unarmed at the time he was killed. This would technically make the killing unlawful; or, at the least, lead to an open verdict. So, instead, by 8-2, they decide that the police ‘lawfully’ killed him; in other words, their verdict is that the firearms officer had genuine cause to believe Duggan was armed and about to fire a gun witnesses said he did not have on his person at the time and that could not be found until some time after the event, at a considerable distance from the body.

In the heat of the moment, it is not an implausible explanation that the officer simply made a mistake. There was no gun, Duggan was surrendering, not about to fire; the reason he was being stopped was that the police had been forewarned he would be armed, so the simple act of raising his hands to surrender, with a black object – his phone – in one hand, could literally have ‘triggered’ an instinctive response in the officer to open fire.

This calls into question somewhat, the meaning of the key word in all of this: ‘lawful’. Because it seems to be self-defining: if there is reason to believe he is threatened, it is ‘lawful’ for the officer to shoot the suspect. If not, then not. So, it is entirely up to the officer him- or herself, supported by the often suspiciously collaborative testimony of his or her colleagues, to decide what is lawful – after the event.

American Followers will probably be amused that this is even an issue in funny old Britain. In America, police shoot and kill 1,600 suspects a year, not one every eighteen months.

So it’s not a problem confined to the UK. In 2012, for instance, police in Houston, Texas, called to the scene of an altercation, shot and killed Brian Claunch, a bipolar double-amputee in a wheelchair, when he brandished a ballpoint pen ‘aggressively’ after being refused a drink and a sandwich at 3 a.m. by his apartment-block supervisor. In California, 13-year-old child Andy Lopez was shot and killed by Santa Rosa police, who fired seven times after he failed to drop his weapon on command – a toy rifle. (Note: an almost exactly similar event occurred in November, 2014 in Cleveland, the dead child, Tamir Rice, in this case being only 12. This however took place against a nationwide wave of protests over incidents in which, specifically, three other young black men had been killed by white police investigating relatively minor offences, and Grand Juries had exonerated the officers without further consequence.)

Instinctive reactions, misperceived threats, reverting mindlessly to training… But I should like to explore a different explanation, that of ‘prior expectation’.

The Lopez killing took place just a day after a schoolteacher had been shot dead by a 12-year-old pupil at a school in Nevada. It was widely reported on the news. Children can be lethal too, you don’t need to be an adult to pull a trigger. And Lopez was Hispanic. He may have looked older, we don’t know. His English might not have been good enough to understand what was being shouted at him. We shall never know.

Father-of-two, Duggan was mixed-race, visibly a ‘black’ man. He was a known associate, if not a full member, of a criminal gang of black men. Any police officer would naturally be predisposed to anticipate that he might react violently on arrest and – being informed about the alleged gun – have already imagined a scenario in which he might have to open fire in self-defence. Although, it has to be said, he had no record of violence or possession of firearms.

Sportsmen and women are taught by psychologists to visualise every stage of their forthcoming event, so as to actualise their hoped-for victory mentally in advance of competing. The officer would have been on a hair-trigger alert and the shooting carried out while he was perhaps not fully in control of his own responses, but enacting a scene that was already played-out in his mind. Any gesture Duggan made would have been misinterpreted as a threat.

Just as, in the killing of the innocent Brazilian electrician Jean-Charles de Menezes in 2005, here was a darkish-skinned man carrying a backpack on the underground, so an entire team of anti-terrorism police assumed he must be a Middle Eastern terrorist involved with an earlier bomb outrage in London, and could therefore lawfully have seven bullets fired into his head at point-blank range in front of horrified passengers while other plain-clothes police were sitting on him in a desperate attempt to prevent him from triggering the bomb he was not in fact carrying. Subsequently, the police concocted a tissue of lies about what had happened; even inventing false rape allegations. The inquest jury returned an open verdict, one stop on the line away from unlawful killing; so no action, and the head of the unit responsible, Cressida Dick, was promoted to the rank of Commander.

These things don’t help.

Scottish father-of-three Henry Stanley was killed in North London in 1999 by police who, on hearing from an informant who thought he had overheard a man in a pub speaking with an ‘Irish’ accent, assumed that the wooden leg Stanley was carrying in a plastic bag to take home to fix a broken table must be a weapon; and that, being audibly Irish, he must be an IRA operative on active service and would obviously therefore be toting a rifle in public. He was not given a chance to explain otherwise, but despite the clearly prejudgemental nature of the armed police response, and an open inquest verdict, no policeman ever stood trial for Stanley’s killing.

Acting again on intelligence, in 1988 Operation Flavius was designed to intercept an apparently genuine IRA attack on British forces in Gibraltar. A plain-clothes unit of the SAS opened fire on the dockside without warning, and killed three IRA members on ‘active service’, one a woman, claiming later that one of them had made a sudden move towards a bag they assumed contained the detonator that would explode a car that turned out not to have a bomb in it after all (it was a dummy run). None of the terrorists was armed at the time; witnesses said they were surrendering. Verdict: lawful killing.

In 1983, armed police in an inner-London street opened fire on a Mini car at traffic lights, hitting 26-year-old film editor, Stephen Waldorf, eight times. He somehow survived. The assumption had been that he was an escaped prisoner, David Martin, who had absconded while on trial for the attempted murder of a police officer. The only reason they thought Waldorf was Martin was because the woman in the car with Waldorf resembled Martin’s girlfriend.  Two policemen were tried, and acquitted. But why had they shot at an innocent driver who was not even pointing a gun at them? Was it because he was believed to be an attempted ‘police-killer’, the worst kind of criminal the police can imagine?

In July 2012, an unnamed man was shot and wounded by armed police in the town of Knaphill, in Surrey. He was carrying a BB gun – a low-velocity, sublethal air weapon capable of firing ball-bearings – however it seems the reason he was shot was because he boasted to police that he had planted a bomb in the block of flats where he was living. The bomb squad was called, but found nothing. Residents had complained for months of drunken behaviour and rough sleepers. The suspect, who survived, was just a drunken, delusional idiot, no real threat to anyone. There are times when split-second decisions need to be made. It’s just that with hindsight, they’re not always the right ones.

And in 2010, alcoholic barrister Mark Saunders, drunk and depressed, fired a shotgun aimlessly out of the window of his London flat, breaking a window opposite, and was killed by five of the eleven bullets fired by police marksmen called to the scene. The police later claimed they had fired in self-defence, although Saunders could not effectively have injured anyone wearing a flak jacket with a shotgun at that range and the police had previously refused to allow his wife to enter the house and talk him down. Some witnesses described him as cheerful and calm that day, others that he was deranged and raving; while a taxi driver testified that Saunders had told him he felt that he was going to die. Lawful killing, although not under the Mental Health Act.

In all these cases, there was a prior assumption on the part of the police for possibly unconnected reasons that not only must the suspect be the guilty party, but that they would also be armed and dangerous, that they presented an immediate threat and there was no possible alternative than to deploy with live ammunition and to shoot to kill. In fact, it seems to have been the heightened prejudice – the ‘prior expectation’ – of the police units that led to the lethal reactions of armed response officers in situations where there was no credible, immediate threat to life.

It is also the case that the police feel they belong in a special category, as they themselves may become targets for random killings. Notorious cases include the 1966 murder of three policemen in London at the instigation of Harry Roberts, a career criminal with a grudge (Note: Roberts, 78, was finally released in December 2014 after serving 42 years. The Police Federation described the parole board’s decision as an insult); and the six-hour shooting spree in Northumberland in 2010 involving the deranged taxi driver Raoul Moat, during which he fired a shotgun at close range and blinded PC David Rathband, who later took his own life.  Then in 2012, came the deliberate murder by a smalltime Manchester hoodlum, Dale Cregan, of police officers Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, at whom he threw a hand-grenade when (unarmed) they responded to a false 999 call he had got a friend to make. Immediately afterwards, he walked into a police station and turned himself in. Facing a long-tariff sentence for another two murders, he had just wanted to take a couple of coppers with him. Few people, I suspect, would have cared if he had been shot.

It may be an exaggeration therefore to call incidents of police shootings deliberate ‘executions’, as Mark Duggan’s family did when the curious verdict was read out; but they were, with hindsight, possibly avoidable misjudgements in situations of prior expectation, overreactions for which there seems to have been little or no consequence for the officers responsible. And it seems at least probable that the psychopathology of such incidents reflects a self-defensive presumption on the part of police that they themselves are the intended targets.

It is true that armed officers respond to three incidents a day in the UK, and manage to kill the wrong person relatively rarely – we should perhaps pass over the case of the blind man who was tasered (twice) because the officer thought his white stick was a Samurai sword; and the case of Sgt Smellie, the 6’7″ Special Patrol Group officer who batoned a 5’2″ disabled woman after she threw an empty orange-juice carton at him during a demonstration, and the judge ruled he had acted lawfully in self-defence. But yes, the police do a difficult and sometimes dangerous job, and mistakes are made. The problem is, they are so rarely admitted to.

The case of Ian Tomlinson brought the self-defensive tactics of police ‘conspiring’ to protect their own into sharp relief. During a demonstration outside a G8 meeting in London in 2009, the middle-aged newspaper seller was trying to  pass through an area where the police had deliberately confined a number of demonstrators for several hours, a controversial tactic known as ‘kettling’. As he passed some SPG police, CCTV shows him making a remark to one of them, PC Simon Harwood, an officer with a prior record of violence, who batoned him on the legs, then violently shoved him in the back. Tomlinson, an alcoholic man with a heart condition, collapsed to the ground, where he died from what was later found to be a ruptured liver.

The police promptly issued a number of statements trying to claim that Tomlinson had provoked the attack, while the first postmortem by a police pathologist reported that Tomlinson had simply collapsed and died of a heart attack. However, the incident had been recorded on video by an American bank worker and a newspaper campaign led to a second, independent postmortem that forced the Independent Police Complaints Commission to reopen the case. Despite an inquest verdict of unlawful killing, Harwood was later acquitted of a charge of manslaughter and dismissed from the force.

If ‘lessons’ are to be ‘learned’ – if ever – then the police ought perhaps to look at both the training of firearms officers, which perhaps overstresses the urgency to shoot first and ask questions later (I am irresistably reminded of the Monty Python sketch, where the self-defence class instructor commands the terrified pupil to: ‘Now, come at me with that banana!’ – of course, it is a little more serious than that); and at the need perhaps to mediate between the backroom controllers and the frontline officers so that the latter go into situations unprejudiced by prior ‘intelligence’ of a dubious kind (I am no expert).

There are also questions of why the inquiries into such incidents may take years to come to their inevitable, anodyne conclusions, since no British judge or jury ever seems willing to disbelieve the word of a policeman; why the police seldom if ever volunteer information after the event that might lead the press, public and politicians to conclude that there had been misjudgements and mistakes; why the supposedly Independent Police Complaints Commission often appears on the surface to be colluding with this process; and why the police are allowed to investigate themselves before successive, expensive independent judicial inquiries have to be set up to get at a more objective version of the truth?

It can be argued that we are asking our police to do an ever more complex, intrusive and ultimately impossible job. Funding cuts and pay freezes, too, have played their part in creating resentment and an embattled mentality. For that reason, we need greater transparency and honesty when things go wrong, as they inevitably will. The public are more willing to forgive an honest and speedy admission of error, than a concocted narrative of lies and evasions that can only result in a damaging loss of confidence when the truth finally emerges. But as the criminal law moves the police ever further into the murky realm of intent, ultimately of criminalising  ‘bad attitude’ – anticipating, as opposed to solving, crimes – the possibility of fatal error is ever-increasing.


As I re-read this Post in April, 2014, astonishing revelations are emerging of apparently deep-seated criminality in the Metropolitan Police force during the 1990s. Thousands of documents relating to long-term anti-corruption investigations are said to have been ‘accidentally’ shredded before the enquiries were completed. The police response has been to claim that the shredding was deliberate, as the data had already been transferred to computer files. Unfortunately, the files had then been lost in an ‘accidental’ computer malfunction!

If a criminal suspect put up a defence like that, they would not be believed. At best it reveals incredible ineptitude. Worse was to follow, however. Some documents were not lost, it seems, and this month ‘found’ their way to the media. They suggest that investigating officers involved in a case where a manager was forced to rob his employer’s safe after his wife and daughter were snatched, had then decided it was such a good wheeze, that they conspired to carry out the same kidnapping on the same family themselves at some future date – until their plot was discovered!

This story has emerged in the wake of ongoing revelations, now the subject of yet another enquiry, that undercover police in the Met infiltrated a group of supporters close to the family of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager murdered in an unprovoked attack by white racists at a South London bus stop in 1993, in order to spy on their campaign to force the police to improve the quality of their lackadaisical investigation. At one stage, the police had attempted to suggest that it was a gangland killing, for which the Lawrence family were somehow responsible. A report by Lord MacPherson concluded that the Met was ‘institutionally racist’. It has subsequently been suggested that a senior officer in the pay of the gangster father of one of the alleged killers, a corrupt relationship (denied, obviously) could have been responsible for the deliberate bungling of the investigation, that meant it was twenty years before any convictions were obtained.

Together with emerging evidence that South Yorkshire police may have deliberately concocted a cover-up on a massive scale in order to exonerate themselves of any suggestion that their mistakes may have led to the deaths of 96 football supporters in a stampede at the Hillsborough ground in Sheffield in 1989, (and the emerging evidence of widespread police inertia in the face of numerous complaints of organised sexual exploitation of female minors) it is surely impossible now for anyone to have faith that our police are not at least to some extent a state-within-a-state, entirely a law unto themselves.

Such revelations piling one upon another are a growing tragedy for those who believe in the rule of law, among whom there must, surely, still be a fair number of police officers who must feel desperately let down by all this?


It is 29 January, 2015, and a report disguised under the anodyne title: ‘Digital communications’ has emerged, three weeks after the event, from the Home Office, admitting that a computer disc containing the transcripts of three judicial enquiries into some of the events reported above, including the names of protected witnesses, have been ‘lost in the post’.

A junior civil servant has been suspended pending enquiries. Tsk, tsk. (Surely we are not still using discs, without backup? Was this a floppy disk, or a CD? Surely we have encoded electronic transfer protocols rendering it unnecessary to rely on a 63p stamp? And surely what is put on disc remains on the hard-drive? No?)

Perhaps the officers tasked with looking for the slipped disc might find it hidden under the same rug as the unofficial Dickens report on orgies involving the abuse of children in care and possible sexual murders carried-on by ‘senior Tory politicians and members of the security establishment’ in the 1970s? Something we may never find, now that former Home Secretary Leon Brittan has conveniently died.

– UB


This story will run and run, I fear.

In the wake of riots in the USA over further excusable murders of black men and women by apparently unaccountable white police officers who have been said officially to be ‘out of control’, we hear now that the ‘Independent’ Police Complaints Commission in the UK has decided there is no case to answer with regard to the so-called ‘Battle of Orgreave’ – an incident that took place 28 years ago at the height of a national strike by miners, when (at the instigation of Mrs Thatcher, who may have illegally diverted public funds to buy the operation) several hundred pickets were lured into a field and attacked by over a thousand foot- and mounted-police.

The IPCC line is that it was all so long ago, it would be impossible to charge anyone. A curious argument, since the police are currently involved in several large-scale enquiries into what were often fairly minor cases of sexual indiscretions in the 1960s and 70s, and the IPCC has no hesitation in prosecuting those to the hilt. In fact, at least four officers are still serving; while, once again, it is South Yorkshire police force that is involved; notorious for their cover-up of their own possible culpability in the Hillsborough football stadium disaster.

The IPCC also argues that, as none of the 95 miners arrested was ultimately convicted of charges of riotous assembly (carrying possible 20-year sentences), basically the fact that senior police officers concocted a load of bollocks (also known as conspiring to pervert the course of justice) against the miners is not of serious importance. This totally ignores the point that the cases were dismissed precisely because the police evidence was so blatantly corrupt that even policemen who were there at the time are complaining that their subsequent attempts to bring the truth to the attention of the authorities were overruled.

Yet we are to trust politicians to sanction mass surveillance activities, which will almost certainly be Home Secretary Theresa May’s version of implementing David Anderson QC’s new report recommending judicial oversight. Apparently, the police are also now seeking powers to examine ‘weblogs’. Oh dear….

Hi, fellas. Kettle’s on.

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