It has been ten years since a catastrophic case of mistaken identity led police to shoot and kill Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Underground station in London. De Menezes – a native to Brazil – was just 27 years old and living only temporarily in London.
He died instantaneously, having been shot seven times in the head and once in the shoulder, at point-blank range, by armed police officers who had pursued him into the station and followed him down to the platform and the train. A total of 11 shots had been fired in that fateful railway carriage.
Back up at street level, when news began to filter through that an innocent man had been killed, the Metropolitan Police was plunged into one of its worst ever crises.
It is important to set a context for these events. Just over two weeks earlier, London had been attacked by a group of suicide bombers, who had killed 52 people and injuring hundreds more.
Jean Charles de Menezes was a victim of those acts, as well as the policing errors that followed. The day before his death, another group of men tried their hand at a series of suicide bombings. Their devices had failed to go off and the police were thrust into one of the most high-pressure manhunts of modern times.
Following evidence discovered in one of the unexploded rucksack bombs police put two suspect addresses under surveillance. From this point almost everything started to go wrong. At a health and safety trial of the Metropolitan Police – the only trial which followed the death of de Menezes – prosecutors accused the police incident managers of 19 “fundamental flaws” which contributed to the violent death of an innocent man.
Many of these failings were related to intelligence, communications (poor radio discipline), identification and operational management failures. There was misdirection in briefings, poor incident planning, technical issues, unclear operational objectives, inaccurate profiling, ambiguous instructions and individual errors.
A house of cards
How could it all have gone so wrong? In the first place, the surveillance team were not sure what their supposed suspect looked like. Photographs of a named suspect had not be checked. So when de Menezes left his building at 9.30am there was initial uncertainty about his identification. This difficulty was compounded by the failure of a surveillance officer (who, after a long stint on duty, was urinating into a bottle in his surveillance van) to video the “suspect” walking past. Surveillance officers followed de Menezes who boarded a bus heading for Brixton tube station.
De Menezes left the bus to go to Brixton tube station, but the station was closed and he joined a queue to get back on the bus. Pursuing officers interpreted this as erratic behaviour, almost as if he were trying to evade the pursuing officers. In their minds, they were moving towards a conclusion that this might we be their man.
In the knowledge that police officers were tailing a potential suspect, armed response officers were dispatched to follow the bus. Unfortunately they were too late to intercept the suspect before he arrived at Stockwell, and went down into the station (a supposed operational priority).
What the armed officers brought to the scene was equally problematic. Ever since the advent of suicide terrorism, police forces around the world had been learning and training in new incident management protocols, with new methods, tactics, and equipment. Central to the new methods was a procedure called Operation Kratos, specifically designed for suicide terrorism incidents.
Kratos procedures involved not shouting warnings (as police are ordinarily required to do) and repeatedly shooting suspects in the head (shooting at the torso was considered likely to risk detonating a bomb strapped to the body) until they no longer represent a threat.
Reading the testimony of officers at the inquest into de Menezes’s death, it is clear that they thought the briefing they were given meant they were going to a terrorist incident. They were also, unusually, issued with hollow-point ammunition designed for close-quarters shooting in confined public spaces – bullets that would expand on impacting the body, causing massive wounds as they expended their kinetic energy on their human target, rather than exiting the body causing a danger to third parties.
The Metropolitan Police is adamant that the Stockwell Tube incident was not a Kratos operation and that it was not how the armed response officers were briefed. In fact the officers and even the head of the Met Police Counter Terrorism Command on duty that day were not clear.
In his autobiography, published only four years later, police officer Andy Hayman said of the incident: “the Kratos rules of engagement for firearms officers were put to the test and failed”.
There may be no doubting the gallantry and commitment of the officers who went down into the tube station that day thinking they were pursuing a suicide bomber with a bomb, but they were following the wrong man. They were in the wrong place, with the wrong instructions. They were acting on wrong assumptions and the wrong plan of action.
The legacy of the Stockwell shooting, the killing of an innocent man, runs far and wide. The de Menezes family were eventually awarded compensation, the Met were prosecuted for health and safety failures resulting in a death.
In its reports, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) called for a “wide and well-informed public debate” about police armed response – and that it should be one not confined to the police. A decade after this terrible death, we are still waiting.