London police found guilty in killing of innocent man

The police force faces fines of almost $1.1 million for endangering the public in the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, mistakenly believed to be a suicide bomber.

A British court found London's police force guilty of health and safety violations in the July 2005 incident that saw officers kill Jean Charles de Menezes in a crowded subway station, after they mistakenly identified him as a suicide bomber. The verdict has brought police conduct into question, as well as elicited calls for the resignation of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair.

The Times (London) reports that the jury fined the London Metropolitan Police (Met) almost £600,000 ($1.1 million) for endangering the public in the incident that led to the shooting of Mr. Menezes, an innocent Brazilian national.

[The jury] upheld a charge against the Met of breaching its duty to protect the public under health and safety legislation after prosecutors detailed a series of 19 alleged errors in the police operation on July 22, 2005. Mr. de Menezes, 27, was shot seven times by specialist firearms officers who followed him into Stockwell Tube station in South London, mistaking him for Hussain Osman, one of four men who had tried unsuccessfully to launch a suicide attack on London's transport system the day before.

Menezes's death was the result of a chain of errors that the police made just a day after several men attempted to detonate suicide bombs on London buses and subways, reports Reuters. The failed attack was meant to replicate the 7/11 attacks that had killed 52 people in London two weeks before.

De Menezes lived in the same block of flats as one of the failed bombers, Hussein Osman. Surveillance officers monitoring the building followed de Menezes on two bus rides without stopping him before he reached the underground train station. Specialist firearms officers were rushed to the station – after a four-hour delay – when senior officers wrongly became convinced de Menezes was Osman. "No explanation has been forthcoming other than a breakdown in communication. It's been clear from the evidence that the surveillance team never positively identified Mr. De Menezes as a suspect," said Judge Richard Henriques.

Time Magazine writes that the case "highlights the dilemma facing authorities across the world responsible for confronting terror while protecting the rights of innocent citizens." Time adds that the court's ruling leaves unanswered questions of cause and responsibility for Menezes's death.

Despite the verdict, the Brazilian's family and human rights campaigners say the trial failed to answer the question of why de Menezes was killed. The Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to charge individual officers with the shooting, and instead brought a case under health and safety legislation on the surreal grounds that the police had "failed to provide for the health, safety and welfare" of de Menezes and other members of the public.

The verdict, which laid no individual blame upon police officials, has focused attention upon Metropolitan Police Commissioner Blair, reports The Independent (London). But Blair said he will not step down.

He told reporters outside the Old Bailey following the guilty verdict: "This case thus provides no evidence at all of systematic failure by the Metropolitan Police. And I therefore intend to continue to lead the Met in its increasingly successful efforts to reduce crime and deter and disrupt terrorist activities in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom." The police chief received the immediate backing of both Downing Street and the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, who said that Sir Ian had her "full confidence". However, she added: "We will consider carefully the implications of the verdict with the police service."

The Times (London) reports that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the two main opposition parties, both called for Blair's resignation.

David Davis, the [Conservatives'] Shadow Home Secretary, said that the trial had shed light on "serial failures", adding: "They include failures of organisation, command and operations. The failures were systemic, falling within the clear responsibility of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police." His Liberal Democrat counterpart, Nick Clegg, also said that the guilty verdict made Sir Ian's resignation "unavoidable". He added: "The simple priority today is to show that we have a police force in London which is prepared to accept full responsibility for its actions."

In an editorial, The Guardian noted the difficult situation the police faced in July 2005, and sympathized with their position. But the paper acknowledged that Blair may not be able to continue to oversee the force.

The police, hunting for four suicide bombers, were under intense pressure. They acted in what they thought were the interests of public safety. How would the public have reacted, had the operation prevented a terrorist attack? Yet the fact remains: yesterday's verdict dealt a serious blow to the Metropolitan police. ... [Blair's] decision to fight for his job may be noble in some regards, but it carries with it a mulish disregard for the opinions of others. Even those who agree with his aims for London's police, including this paper, recognise that Sir Ian may no longer be in a position to put them into effect.

Meanwhile, an editorial in The Daily Telegraph asked, "Who's responsible for shooting de Menezes?" And suggested that the answer is Blair.

Yesterday's trial verdict should be viewed alongside the report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, published in August, which examined the way the Met dealt with Mr de Menezes's killing. That offered a deeply unflattering picture of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, who was revealed as being kept out of the loop as his officers learnt the dreadful truth that an innocent man had been shot dead. Taking that into consideration with yesterday's guilty verdict, one could be forgiven for assuming the position of the man at the top to be untenable.
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