With the last police shooting in London - the killing of Michael Duggan in Tottenham - sparking widespread rioting, the police have gone into public relations overdrive. The police held a public meeting about the incident on Monday night (see report at The Multicultural Politic) and Lewisham Community Police Consultative Group is holding another one on Saturday (25.02.12) at Kilmorie Primary School, Kilmorie Road, London, SE23 2SP, starting at 1pm. Naturally the police will want to put across their version of events, but it is important to be clear that the facts of what happened have not yet been independently established. In many previous cases the first version of events reported in the press has turned out to be incomplete and misleading.
Let's recall the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, the young Brazilian man shot dead by police at Stockwell Station in July 2005. In the aftermath of this, police officers made a number of statements on or off the record which were subsequently found to be untrue. They also allowed press stories which they knew to be untrue to go unchallenged. Many people would have gained the false impression from this that Jean Charles was acting suspiciously: that he was wearing bulky clothing on a summer's day (in fact he was wearing a denim jacket), that he jumped the ticket barrier (the CCTV showed he used an oyster card) and that he ignored police warnings (the jury at the inquest concluded that no warning was given).
Likewise in the Mark Duggan case, it was suggested that he had fired at police. It was later disclosed that this was incorrect and that a bullet that lodged in a policeman's radio had in fact been fired by another officer.
What happened in Forest Hill?
Many people have already made up their mind about what happened in Forest Hill on Sunday. To quote a commenter at Brockley Central. 'The man was running round with a machete. Tasers didn't work. What's to discuss?'. This may or may not be correct. This is what the police statement said:
'At around 05:40 hrs on Sunday 19 February, police were called to reports by members of the public of a man attempting to break in to a car in Elsinore Road, SE23. Local officers attended and attempted to approach the man who then threatened them with a large bladed weapon. The officers retreated and called for further units to assist including firearms officers.The man then approached officers on Stanstead Road threatening them with the weapon.
Firearms officers attended the scene, and both taser and firearms were deployed. Subsequently the male received gunshot wounds having been shot by police...The circumstances will now be subject of an investigation. There are no further details at present but we can confirm a number of knives have been recovered from the scene'.
|The scene of the shooting, with tasers and clothes on the ground|
The Independent Police Complaints Commission statement says:
'An independent investigation was immediately launched by the IPCC after Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) officers’ tasered and shot a 25-year-old local man.The incident started in Elsinore Road shortly after 5.40am when officers responded to an emergency call. Additional officers, including firearms teams, arrived at the scene and the man was tasered. Firearms officers discharged five bullets three of which hit the man. He sustained abdomen, leg and hand injuries and remains in King’s College Hospital receiving treatment. A young man remains in hospital but with help from eyewitnesses we can piece together bit-by-bit as much information as possible to form a clear sequence of events. I would urge anyone who can provide information to contact the IPCC by email at email@example.com or on freephone 0800 096 9077.'
What about witnesses? The Standard reported (20 February 2012) 'Witnesses on a residential street have described the chaotic scenes after a ‘madman with a sword’ was shot by police'. The source? 'Dad-of-one Jason Dempsey, 30, said: “I was told the guy had a sword' - so not actually a direct witness at all.
'Council worker Laura Wilkinson, of Stanstead Road, said: “I heard the gunshots and there were quite a lot of them. There were three in quick succession followed by three more. I got up and looked out the window. The police were screaming and shouting. They were shouting ‘get down, stay where you are’...I was relieved to see lots of police out there because obviously waking up to gunshots wasn’t a pleasant experience. It was mad.” The 26-year-old added: “It does seem like a lot for someone with a knife.”'
So far I have only seen reports of what people heard, or heard from others, whether any other direct eye witnesses have come forward is unclear.
People running round the streets waving blades need to be restrained, but that doesn't mean they should be routinely shot. There are a number of key questions in this particular case.
- what exactly was the nature of the threat to police? - was it a sword, a machete or a knife? How close did it come to injuring anybody?
- what was the exact sequence of events? - did police use the taser, and when this failed, open fire? Or were they used more or less simultaneously? Why did the taser fail? How many officers fired shots? Did they all take the same action, or did one literally jump the gun? Did they follow their own rules and procedures?
- assuming it was a matter of a 'madman with a sword', a whole lot of other questions come into play not just for the police but for other health and social care agencies. Because the actions of such a person would suggest not a career criminal but a vulnerable adult, for instance with mental health and/or drug & alcohol problems. If that were the case, questions might include whether the person was known to other agencies and whether they had received the support they needed.
In events like these it is right that the facts should be independently investigated, rather than the police investigating themselves. Whether the IPCC is up to this job is another matter - their investigation into the death of Smiley Culture in a police raid last year was criticised by his family, because among other things the IPCC was not even able to formally interview all of the officers involved.