Saturday, July 30, 2005

"Get on the Floor" 

The Sunday Times of London is now confirming the account of the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting put forth by his relatives at a press conference earlier this week:
Senior police sources have confirmed that the officers involved in the operation that led to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, the innocent Brazilian would not have needed to shout a warning before firing . . . .

The Independent Police Complaints Commission is studying CCTV footage that caught de Menezes’s last moments. What is already clear is that the initial accounts of his death on July 22 were wrong . . . .

The man, according to the police, was suspect because of his “clothing and behaviour”. He had been followed from a house that had been under surveillance. When he was challenged at Stockwell, he ignored instructions and ran. He had vaulted over the ticket barrier and was wearing a dark bulky jacket that could disguise a bomb.

One witness had de Menezes as an Asian with a beard and wires coming out of his torso. The truth is more mundane. De Menezes, an electrician, was travelling to north London to fix a fire alarm.

He was not wearing what witnesses called a “black bomber jacket”, but a denim jacket. It was about 17C and his clothing would not have been out of the ordinary.

He did not vault a ticket barrier, as claimed. He used a travelcard to pass through the station in the normal way. His family believes that he may have started to run simply because he heard the train pulling in — something Londoners do every day. Indeed, a train was at the platform when he got there.

Police clearly believed that de Menezes might have been a suicide bomber, even though he was not carrying a rucksack. This raises a key question: why was de Menezes allowed to board a bus in Tulse Hill and travel to Stockwell, if officers thought that his body might be rigged with explosives? It also raises questions about the new shoot-to-kill protocol. The protocol — which is specific to individual targets — can be put into force only when police have reason to believe that a suspect may be carrying a bomb. The order can be issued only by a “gold commander” at Scotland Yard.

The order, once given, clears officers to shoot the suspect in the head if they believe that he is about to activate the bomb. The idea is to give the individual no time to react. Police do not have to shout a warning before they act: to do so would negate the effect of the head shot.

Some witnesses say that de Menezes was given no chance to give himself up. They say that once on the train he was pinned to the ground and shot.

Lee Ruston, 32, was at the bottom of the escalator that de Menezes ran down. He believes that he heard every word said by officers.

According to him, officers did not say the word “police” or offer de Menezes the prospect of arrest. “I heard a voice shouting ‘get on the floor, just get on the floor’. Another voice said the same, ‘get on the floor’. I then heard the crack of gunshots,” he said.

Whether de Menezes was given a warning — as police claimed — will be critical to the inquiry, as will the assessment of the gold commander who decided that de Menezes was a threat and implemented the shoot-to-kill protocol.
As our revered colleague Avedon Carol is fond of pointing out, the head-shot policy assumes that suicide bombers lack either the ingenuity or the technological expertise to utilize a "dead man's trigger" -- i.e., a device that causes an explosive to detonate as soon as the operator relaxes his grip on it.

UPDATE: As predicted, various MP's are demanding that the shoot-to-kill policy be opened to public debate:
'The new terrorist threat requires new responses,' said Jeremy Browne, a Liberal Democrat member of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee. 'But an operational policy decision as fundamental as shoot to kill poses wider questions about the power of the state, and should be subject to proper political scrutiny and approval.'
UPDATE II: More ugly details from the Scotsman:
Documents leaked to newspapers also suggest police are now operating under orders not to challenge suicide bombers or identify themselves before firing a critical headshot. This raises questions over whether de Menezes was aware that he was being pursued by officers and whether he had an opportunity to surrender . . . .

But Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair claimed his armed officers had challenged de Menezes, and that he did not obey their orders.

All the officers were dressed in plain clothes and none of the witnesses has so far described hearing the word "police".

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