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Paul Vallely: Police officers are not above the law  

29 September 2023

Rebuilding trust in the Met requires accountability, argues Paul Vallely


WHEN a totally innocent man, Jean Charles de Menezes, was shot seven times in the head by police in 2005, the Crown Prosecution Service deemed that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any individual officer. The officers involved had said that they thought that he was a terrorist about to detonate a suicide bomb. He is one of 33 people shot dead by members of the Metropolitan Police since 1990. No member of the force has been convicted as a result.

That is understandable, many would say, since, when confronted by criminals who, they believe, could be deadly, officers have to make split-second decisions in fast-moving situations.

So, it is very unusual for a police officer to be charged with murder. That is why there was a revolt in the ranks after a Met officer was so charged, after a black man, Chris Kaba, was killed by a single shot to the head while driving a car that the police had linked to a gun incident. More than 100 officers handed back their licence to carry weapons.

What was less understandable was that they were backed by the head of the force, Sir Mark Rowley, who declared: “There is a concern on the part of firearms officers that, even if they stick to the tactics and training they have been given, they will face years of protracted legal proceedings which impact on their personal well-being and that of their family.” In a letter to the Home Secretary, he called for a re-examination of the part played by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, whose investigation into the killing of Mr Kaba led the Crown Prosecution Service to level the murder charge.

This is a serious misjudgement. Sir Mark was appointed Metropolitan Police Commissioner to rebuild trust in the force after a series of scandals had severely undermined public confidence. Police firearms units were in particular need of purgation, according to the damning review undertaken by Dame Louise Casey after the death of Sarah Everard at the hands of a policeman (News, 19 March 2021). Some of the worst examples of culture, behaviour, and practice, the Casey report declared, were inside firearms units, which had been infected by a toxic culture of elitism, bullying, racism, and misogyny.

Until now, Sir Mark has seemed up to the job. He has dismissed more than 100 Met officers for gross misconduct and suspended 1000 others. So, his retreat into a defensive mode after the firearm officers’ insurrection is a setback.

The intervention of a former Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Sir Peter Fahy, has been more helpful. He suggested that the police needed to review the way in which they pursued suspects, and to use new technology to find ways to stop vehicles. They should reduce the number of situations in which armed officers had to intervene.

Morale in the Met is low. Many officers feel unappreciated and suggest that the criticism of them is unbalanced. Politicians and the public fail to understand the realities of day-to-day policing, they say. Perhaps so. But, for all that, the police must be subject to the criminal law in the same way as the rest of us. There can be no culture of impunity. A charge of murder has been laid, and the law must take its course.

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