Police and Fatal Shootings

Maurice Punch

Maurice Punch

by Maurice Punch, author of Shoot to Kill

A fatal shooting is the ultimate in police use of power. Hence it is vital to achieve clarity and transparency on the reasons for it to ensure trust on the police use of firearms. After the massacre at Hungerford (1987) British policing became semi-armed: and the standard approach was geared to restraint, firing single rounds and aiming for the body mass – to stop and not to kill. That changed dramatically at Stockwell in 2005 when Met officers shot dead Jean-Charles de Menezes at point-blank range with several hollow-point bullets to the head. This can only be fatal and was indisputably “shooting to kill”. It raised a host of issues but the police and the Home Office went silent and have managed to avoid a fundamental debate. What should have been explored was:

– the law, national policy, operational guidelines, tactics, weapons and ammunition;
– the operational chain of risk assessment, briefing, encounters, post-incident evaluation and accountability;
– and the aftermath of a fatal shooting regarding support for family and friends, informing stakeholders and the media and cooperating with investigations.

If this had been brought unambiguously into the public domain after Stockwell it would have proved valuable in the current controversy surrounding the Mark Duggan shooting. We now need to know what has been determining the Met`s firearm`s policy and tactics. CO19, for instance, has become highly professional and skilled. To what extent is this a “militarization” of policing – written about extensively in the US – and has it altered the ground rules? Could it be that the Home Secretary`s priority on cutting crime, the Mayor`s emphasis on swift results and the Commissioners “total policing” have pressured officers and hardened tactics?

This is particularly relevant when the police get it wrong with irreversible consequences. Some of the most serious disturbances in the US have been when police have shot dead young black men who were unarmed. This also forms the key issue in the shooting of Duggan: was he unarmed at the moment he was shot? Thanks to the restraint of the Duggan family following the inquest verdict – and the proactive Met approach – there has been none of the mass violence that occurred in 2011. But this case raises two important factors:

Firstly, there are the objective elements about the context, risk assessment, equipment, briefing (was it recorded?) and the actual encounter. These are important in assessing the nature of the assignment, the appropriateness of the “hard-stop” tactic and whether alternatives were considered.

Secondly, there is the subjective experience of the officers. The evidence on firearms use is that there is always a degree of visual and aural distortion. In seemingly life-threatening situations any implement, a piece of a hoover in one case, viewed as a weapon – or a sudden gesture can lead to an officer firing, with the defence of a reasonable fear of fatal danger. The officer may even become convinced that there was a weapon when none was present. Officers do misperceive the threat in the split-seconds of a shooting and this will continue to happen however hard they train.

The conflict in assessing liability then comes from this tension between the objective factors and the subjective experience of the officer. Inquests and juries having seen and heard the evidence are burdened with assessing the validity of the latter – and a head-camera can`t look inside an officer`s mind – and tend to side with the officer`s account, to the disbelief of relatives and friends of the victim and the media.

Politicians and the police have kept the profound and unresolved implications of Stockwell out of the public arena. If they had taken the opportunity to inform the public fully on police use of firearms it might have defused the controversy and turbulence around the disputed shooting of Duggan.

Maurice Punch, 11-01-14, Amstelveen, The Netherlands.

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