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The killing that shamed justice

Leader - New Statesman Monday 22nd August 2005

The revelations about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes contained in the documents leaked to ITN will not have surprised the Brazilian's family, who revealed as early as 27 July that he was not wearing a bulky jacket at the time he was shot, did not vault the ticket barrier at Stockwell Underground station and could not have been said to be acting suspiciously.

They have now learned some further details that are equally shocking - for example, that de Menezes appears to have been in the firm grip of one officer when he was shot by another - but, for them, the picture is essentially the same. Nothing will bring back this innocent man, who died at the hands of people whose duty it was to protect him, for no other reason than that he lived in the wrong building, used public transport, and was a little dark in appearance. One officer referred to his "Mongolian eyes".

For policing and government, however, the new evidence has implications that take the breath away. The responsibility for delivering a first judgement lies with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but the leaked documents (although the picture they paint is likely to be incomplete) leave little doubt that there is more to this than an individual error or even a chain of errors.

The IPCC must decide whether, as the evidence now seems to suggest, there has been a failure of the command system and possibly of policy. At the heart of it all is this question: how and why did officers on the ground respond in a manner so disproportionate to the threat? Twenty-five minutes elapsed between the moment de Menezes emerged from his flat and the shooting; that is not an especially long time, but nor is it the blink of an eye, calling for that hair-trigger decision-making of which police officers often speak. We know that this was a very jumpy period in London - it was the day after the round of failed bombings - but a mistake on this scale does not begin to be understandable.

Another unsettling aspect of this affair, and one that is unlikely to fall fully within the remit of the IPCC, is the manner in which false information gained currency. No one with an interest in accountable, democratic government can be comfortable with what occurred. Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, referred in a press conference to suspicions aroused by the clothing and behaviour of Jean Charles de Menezes. There seems to be no doubt that some of his subordinates then supplied journalists with considerably more information that tended to mitigate the shooting - much of it, it now seems, just as inaccurate.

We need to be told at some stage how this happened, who was responsible and what they have to say for themselves. Journalists and editors, too, should be asking themselves questions: if they had been more scrupulous about identifying their sources of information from the outset, would the public have swallowed so many falsehoods?

For the government, there are grounds here to pause and reflect. The tendency of ministers in recent weeks has been to treat the judgement of the police and security services as if it were beyond debate. Tony Blair, in particular, has mocked opposition parties in the Commons for questioning what he says about security, on the grounds that these are not his opinions but those of senior police officers, and therefore, by implication, the equivalent of holy writ.

He should never have behaved in this way, and he should stop now and instruct his ministers to follow suit. The police get a great deal right, and we should be grateful for that, but they also (like the security services and like everybody else) get some things wrong. The government's role, particularly in a crisis of the kind precipitated by the 7 July attacks, is to keep a distance from the professionals, weigh their advice with care, and remember who it represents and what is being protected. It is our freedoms, not our police, that make us what we are.

Beyond these concerns, ministers and the public should be thinking more deeply about the police and whether we have quite the police service we need or deserve. It may seem an inappropriate moment to raise such questions, but one of the quirks of police reform is that it is never the right moment for it: either there is a crisis, and so everybody is too distracted or busy and police morale is deemed to be too precious, or there is no crisis, and so the need is less evident.

Make no mistake, the de Menezes case represents a profound crisis for British policing and we should not be content with responses that are less than profound.