Police accountability and transparency is the issue

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
2 Nov 2007

It is clear that the Metropolitan Police have a massive amount to learn from the Stockwell shooting tragedy in July 2005. But is the resignation of police chief Sir Ian Blair one of the necessary outcomes? I am not at all sure that it is at this stage. In fact it may be just the wrong move in terms of the need for further change and substantial public accountability and transparency by the police – an easy and visible ‘pay off’ without, necessarily, any systemic benefit in what has been identified by Mr Justice Henriques as “a corporate failure ”.

The potential losses also need to be examined. Overall, Sir Ian Blair has been an important agent for change in the Met – re-emphasising community policing, opposing racism, seeking to modernise the service, and developing a better relationship of the police with the public, including minority communities. There is more to be done in all these areas, and he is still in a good place to oversee it. Perhaps more so, given the expectation that will follow in the wake of this verdict.

The 'guilty' verdict against the police service for the Jean Charles De Menezes killing identified 19 key failings, some of them “inexplicable” other than in terms of the general pressure and anxiety of the moment. The Met was fined £175,000 and ordered to pay £385,000 costs after the Old Bailey jury found it had breached health and safety rules and failed in its duty to protect members of the public in the shooting of the innocent Brazilian electrician in south London on 22 July 2005.

But the judge did not believe that there was individual culpability, and the jury unusually asked for (and was granted) a rider saying that Cressida Dick, the commander in charge of the operation on the day, should not be held personally liable. In this situation, “bandwagon resignation calls” from opposition parties and Labour MP Kate Hoey feel like the kind of “for effect” politics we should be moving away from in the face of deeper problems – like the overall failure of the complaints and investigation system.

If Sir Ian Blair does end up going in the immediate future, it is more likely to be as a result of sustained pressure (including that mounted by the press) than developed logic or the calculated benefit of citizens. It is not difficult to see why the De Menezes family may feel that the appalling gunning down of their relative should merit a senior head, but they and their legal counsel, the very able Clare Montgomery, are being commendably restrained in the matter – though they are rightly critical of defence's shameful attempt to implicate the victim. Ronald Thwaites QC, on behalf of the police, claimed De Menezes had partly been killed because he acted in an "aggressive and threatening manner" when challenged, something explicitly denied by witnesses. The inconsistency of police evidence is something that needs to be investigated further.

But this is precisely why there is a strong argument for saying that the better course would be for Sir Ian Blair to stay and ensure that there is collective accountability, which has been lacking to date, in spite of changes to procedure signalled by the Metropolitan Police Authority. The force's “not guilty: plea, which he as chief was required to enter, proved wrong. The process of change resulting from an acknowledgement of disastrous mistakes now needs to move forward.

Far greater transparency is also vital. As Shami Chakrabati, director of Liberty, has declared: "[The] corporate conviction of the Metropolitan police means little more than a circular fine of the taxpayer and the Met's 'right to a fair trial' (in which no individual's liberty was ever at stake) was the excuse for delaying full public disclosure of what went so badly wrong [through the Independent Police Complaints Commission]. The IPPC report is still not published and Londoners have no real idea whether a similar operation today would be any more competent than it was that fateful summer."

In terms of other lessons, the failure of a widely criticised shoot-to-kill policy at its first major hurdle is definitely one. Ekklesia said in the immediate aftermath of the Stockwell fatality that it was inappropriate and wrong, and we disagreed with the Anglican Bishop of Southwark in his attempt to justify it, pointing out that the churches and faith bodies have more positive contributions to make in terms of combating the religious justifications of terror and promoting conflict transformation techniques; initiatives that don't involve judicially sanctioned violence. As we asked of church leaders trying too hard to look ‘responsible’ and ‘realistic’ back then: who would Jesus shoot-to-kill?

Sir Ian has been caught up in the appropriate-use-of-force debate, too. But it is possible to disagree with him on that and other issues (including ID cards and 90 day detention without trial for terror suspects) without thinking that he should become a pointless sacrificial goat in the De Menezes tragedy, rather than one of the key people to be held corporately responsible. But first the IPCC report must be published and considered. Then another view can be taken.

Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog on religion in public life can be found at: http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com

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