Health and safety did for de Menezes
It’s not good enough. It’s not good enough just to shrug our shoulders and say that Jean Charles de Menezes was an inevitable casualty of the so-called war on terror.
According to the polls I have seen, the majority of voters really seem to think we should all heave a sigh, move on, and accept that someone will always be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I say that I am afraid that will not do, because if you think about what actually happened, and you look at the real reason why an innocent Brazilian electrician had seven shots pumped into his head by the police, it is clear that we are in danger of drawing precisely the wrong conclusion.
It wasn’t too little concern for health and safety that did for that young man. The awful paradox is that it was too much.
A few years ago there was a terrible incident at Highmoor Cross in Oxfordshire, when a gunman went on a rampage and shot three women. Although the alarm was raised almost immediately, and although the police were on the scene very shortly afterwards, it took them the better part of an hour before they entered the premises to tend to the bleeding, dying women – while the gunman had long since fled.
In the ensuing recriminations, some police officers rightly pointed to their own cumbersome procedures for dealing with firearms incidents. The rules of engagement were drawn up after the Hungerford shootings, we were told.
They were meant to stop brave and unarmed police officers from being shot; the principle was that the safety of the public and the safety of the police were to be treated as of equal importance – with lamentable results.
Well, if you look at what happened on the way to Stockwell Tube in 2005, you can see the analogies.
The first surveillance team had arrived outside Mr de Menezes’s house in Scotia Road at 6.04am and the second surveillance team arrived at 8.55am. There was no point, from the crack of dawn until his death, at which de Menezes was not under the eye of at least one police officer, and sometimes he was clearly surrounded by several.
Yet the police at no stage did the obvious thing. He was suspected of being a suicide bomber called Hussain Osman; so why in the name of all that’s holy did the officers not just tap him on the shoulder – especially as doubts grew about this identification – and ask him quickly to clear the matter up?
Ah! the cry goes up. But he could have had a bomb! He could have reached under his shirt, or detonated a device in his hand. That is the justification for the inaction and, again, it just won’t do.
If he was genuinely thought to be primed with a bomb, then why was he let on a bus to Brixton station, and why on earth was he then let on another bus (Brixton station being closed) to go to Stockwell?
Let me put this as bluntly as possible. If the police thought he was a real threat to the public then why was he allowed to maximise that threat by getting on public transport?
No one in their right mind would cast aspersions on the bravery of the police. Look at the conduct of “Ivor”, one of the surveillance team, who followed the suspect all the way down into the Tube, and then on to the train, and then pinned down de Menezes’s arms in order to stop him reaching for a putative detonator.
At the moment when they approached that man on the Tube, Ivor and his companions still thought (with varying degrees of conviction) there was a possibility that he could be a suicide bomber. They were brave as lions. So what stopped them from exercising their common sense, and what stopped the situation from getting so out of control? It is because they were once again following procedures.
The procedures dictated that even though the police were mob-handed, and though they kept asking whether or not they should intercept the suspect, they should do nothing. They were repeatedly told to wait for the SO19 firearms unit, and that they should on no account tackle the suspect until then.
Why did they receive this initiative-crippling instruction? The only conclusion we can draw is that it was deemed essential to wait for the firearms team in order to protect the health and safety of the surveillance team; which was nonsensical, because surveillance officers in the end had to run the risk of stopping him on the Tube and pointing him out to the firearms unit, at which point he could easily have detonated his putative bomb – at the moment when the risk to the public was greatest of all.
It is not wholly fair to blame the police for their regulations. As the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire yesterday pointed out, it is the insane cult of health and safety that is stifling common sense.
Remember when the former Met commissioner Sir John Stevens spent six weeks in the Old Bailey, accused of breaking health and safety regulations after one of his officers fell through a garage roof in pursuit of a suspect? If the Met had lost that case, it would have been impossible for any officer to chase villains at height – unless he believed that the suspect’s own health and safety was at risk!
If Sir Ian Blair is to remain in office, and restore confidence, he needs to show urgently how he proposes to bring back common-sense policing.
Most police officers are fully aware that their difficult and dangerous job will sometimes involve them taking a risk on behalf of the public; and yet they are sometimes finding that procedures prevent them from doing what they want instinctively to do.
The dreadful truth is that it wasn’t excessive trigger-happiness that led to the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. It was the modern obsession with health and safety that ratcheted up the risk to the public, and fatally compromised the health and safety of an innocent man.