What is the ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy in the UK and why does nobody want to talk about it?

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November it was announced that Downing Street had approved a measure that would see police or military being order to ‘shoot-to-kill’ on British streets.

In today’s guest post Maurice Punch, who has researched and written extensively on the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell underground station in 2005, asks why there isn’t more clarity and conversation about the police use of firearms.

PunchA fatal shooting is the ultimate in police use of force on the state`s behalf. Hence it is vital to achieve clarity and transparency to ensure trust in police legitimacy.

But since 2005 and Stockwell – when Met officers, in extreme circumstances, shot dead Charles de Menezes on an underground train assuming he was a suicide bomber – there has been obfuscation.


Some maintain that the policy which emerged then has fundamentally changed the police paradigm on firearms and strengthened the possibility of prosecution for officers concerned. This legal and policy uncertainty is unacceptable and needs urgent resolution.

“…in reality every police shooting is potentially lethal”

Police never speak of “shooting to kill” but in reality every police shooting is potentially lethal. The body can absorb several bullets yet the person can survive: but a single round can prove fatal. Moreover if Authorized Firearms Officers (AFOs) confront an armed person posing a threat they may fire as often as deemed necessary but then with a high likelihood of death.


‘Prior intention not to kill’ is important legally following a disputed shooting to evade prosecution: and, importantly, it reflected long standing policy. Historically “British” firearms policy (Northern Ireland excluded) was geared to restraint, issuing warnings, accounting for each round and aiming for the body mass.

“The explicit purpose was to “stop” and not to kill”

The explicit purpose was to “stop” and not to kill. The AFO`s obligations are outlined every time a weapon is drawn from the armoury. Furthermore, the AFO pulling the trigger is held accountable: and “following orders” is not an acceptable defence.

That all changed dramatically at Stockwell in 2005. An ambulant suicide bomber with an explosive vest is ruthlessly determined to cause mass casualties. He or she may explode the device if challenged, detonate it when still injured and perhaps even cause another explosion by remote control. The Israelis and Americans had developed tactics to deal with suicide bombers and British police and security representatives had consulted them and devised a covert policy for this new threat.

“This tactic could not other than prove fatal and was indisputably “shooting-to-kill””

The secret policy that publically emerged after Stockwell was based on: no warning and firing several times at the back of the head at point-blank range with hollow-point bullets that spread on impact and remain in the brain to prevent the bomber exploding the device. Due to the circumstances of the operation what actually happened on the tube train deviated somewhat from that; there was confusion about identification allowing de Menezes to enter the train; two AFOs then approached de Menezes and, when a surveillance officer grabbed him, he was shot at nine times at point-blank range with seven bullets entering his head, neck and shoulder.   A Designated Senior Officer (DSO) was in command to initiate the tactic. This tactic could not other than prove fatal and was indisputably “shooting to kill”.

This indicated a sea-change regarding police use of firearms. Indeed it reflects “shooting to eliminate” as used by Special Forces where multiple shots to the head and vital organs are used to eliminate any possible threat.

A combination of errors

Hence officers were asked to do something fundamentally opposed to their training and also to the long standing paradigm underpinning British practice which, in turn, provided a legal defence. Tragically a combination of errors and failures led the Met to killing an innocent man at Stockwell, graphically revealing that getting it wrong proves irrevocable.

There are four main points arising from this disturbing matter:

  • Firstly the government delegated responsibility for formulating firearms policy to ACPO*: who then really “owned” this new policy?
  • Secondly, did having a DSO in command mean this officer was issuing an “order” hence drawing accountability upwards? Indeed, the prosecution and conviction of the Met under Health and Safety law indicated wider, corporate culpability?
  • Thirdly, has this in some way led to a slippery slope of more aggressive firearms` use given the number of highly controversial police shootings in recent years?
  • And fourthly should the police be involved in certain counter-terrorist operations which imply further “militarization”? Should there rather be, as elsewhere in Europe, specialized paramilitary units for such extreme tasks?

Of all these the first point is pivotal. Indisputably a British police force shot to kill. There may, indeed, be no alternative to answer this particular threat. But rather than enhanced clarity the Home Office has gone silent and has suffocated fundamental debate.

Essence of democracy

Yet the essence of democracy is accountability and transparency. This particularly applies to police use of fatal force. The entire matter should be brought into the public domain, with public and parliamentary debate and appropriate legislation to guarantee clarity and transparency for the public, victims of police shootings and their families and operational officers.

“..an urgent, profound matter intrinsically related to governance, accountability, legality, ethics and human rights”

It is highly suspicious that the Home Office – mostly engaged in lambasting and emasculating the police – slipped this particularly crucial issue to the largely unaccountable ACPO. How police kill fellow citizens on behalf of the state – an urgent, profound matter intrinsically related to governance, accountability, legality, ethics and human rights – needs to be embedded within the domain of Parliament and the law.

*Association of Chief Police Officers, replaced in 2015 by the National Police Chiefs Council

Shoot to kill [FC]What matters in policing [FC]Shoot to kill is available to purchase here  from the Policy Press website as is Marice Punch’s most recent co-authored book What matters in policing?

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

1 Response to “What is the ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy in the UK and why does nobody want to talk about it?”

  1. 1 Public service outsourcing: criminal ignorance? | The Policy Press Blog Trackback on January 19, 2016 at 11:25 am

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