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As the inquest into the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes in 2005 opens today, the task at hand should not only be to apportion blame but also to consider the technologies and the procedural changes required to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring again.
By Dr Tobias Feakin, Director, Homeland Security and Resilience Department
22 September 2008 - As the inquest into the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes begins at the Oval Cricket Ground today, it once again opens up questions regarding the police’s ability to respond to a similar situation in the future. Whilst questions will be raised in the inquest as to the exact details of the unfortunate death of a Brazilian immigrant on 22 July 2005, are specialist police firearms teams any better equipped or trained to avoid a similar outcome than they were three years ago?
Today’s inquest will be the fourth inquiry that has taken place since the shooting, the two most notable of which have been published by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). In 2007 the IPCC released the findings of its examination of the circumstances surrounding the death, which came to be known as the ‘Stockwell One’ Report, thereafter the ‘Stockwell Two’ Report examined the actions of senior officers involved in the aftermath of the shooting. The second report concluded that information about the case had been mishandled by those involved.
What has not been examined in sufficient depth however – at least not publicly – is the police procedures and the enabling technologies that could prevent such a tragedy from taking place again. Clearly, upon reading the open source information that is available on the operational details of the case, officers on the scene lacked the ability to a) positively identify the suspect as Hussain Osman (one of those suspected of carrying out the failed 21 July bombings); b) ascertain if the suspect was carrying a bomb on his person; and finally they did not have access to alternative technologies to lethal force for engaging the suspect.
A technological push is required to develop and make available equipment that could enable officers to scan from a distance a suspected suicide bomber to know if he/she is carrying explosives or a weapon. Technologies such as facial scanning devices can assist officers in making a positive identification of an individual while they are conducting a mobile operation; money needs to be spent in research and development of such scanning technologies so that they can be developed to a scale that is small enough that officers can utilise them in specialist operations. If such scanning technologies were developed then this would enable a more flexible application of force, proportional to the threat that was faced.
Finally there needs to be an examination into alternative technologies to lethal force that are nevertheless sufficient to incapacitate a suspect. The difficulty with finding an alternative to lethal force in this type of operation is the requirement to instantly incapacitate an individual without any possibility of reflex action, in case the suspect is indeed carrying an explosive device. At present, none of these technologies has been developed to a degree that they can be used operationally, but placing more focus and impetus on them in the future seems vital if another Jean Charles De Menezes type tragedy is to be avoided.
For the Metropolitan Police, this case comes at a sensitive time. Their Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, has never been far from the news headlines in recent months and he will be under constant scrutiny during the trial as further questions may be raised about his role and leadership in the incident.
There is, however, equally a need for the public to understand the pressures on counter-terrorist policing operations – pressures that few of us will have to endure in our working lives. When dealing with counter-terrorist incidents, where the perceived outcome could potentially kill many members of the public, the decisions made by our police can make the difference between life and death not only for the individual they are pursuing but for hundreds of potential victims. Assistance from technology providers and experts in the security sector should be encouraged to help the police refine and develop both their procedures and the technologies that they use in countering terrorism.
1. Independent Police Complaints Commission (2007a) – Stockwell One - Investigation into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell underground station on 22 July 2005. London
2. Independent Police Complaints Commission (2007b) – Stockwell Two - An investigation into complaints about the Metropolitan Police Service’s handling of public statements following the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on 22 July 2005. London.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.