Our beloved and totally trustworthy protectors… pshaw
On the 4th of August 2011, an unarmed man named Mark Duggan was shot to death by armed police in Tottenham, London, in the UK. His death was the incident that- added to many previous injustices and ills visited upon the small urban area by those in positions of power- triggered city-wide rioting and looting.
It has taken over two years for an inquest into his death to be completed, and a verdict to be delivered. The details of the case teach us a great deal about how our police force functions, and the verdict tells us a lot about the law, whom the law is designed to protect, and how society regards these things.
Yesterday, the inquest into Mr Duggan’s killing delivered the following verdict: Though they rejected the claims of some police officers that Mr Duggan had been armed at the time of the shooting, they stated that his killing was a “lawful killing”. This has provoked a storm of incredulous protest from Mr Duggan’s family and supporters of his family.
By itself, the verdict merely confirms the current state of affairs in the UK: that it is legal for police officers to shoot someone to death when the balance of probability is that they do NOT pose a lethal threat to the police, or to anyone. Here’s why I say that:
The Facts of the Case:
The facts of the case are as follows, and are effectively uncontested:
1. The police state that they suspected Mark Duggan of being a gang member, and state that they had suspected him of many and varied serious and violent crimes in the past.
2. Mr Duggan had never been convicted of any serious crime. He had never been sent to prison, nor had he ever been given a community-based sentence. His most serious crime, for which he was fined a grand total of £250, was “receiving stolen goods” in 2007. In an impoverished area like Tottenham, such convictions are commonplace and do not prove much about a person’s real character.
3. The police state that they believed that Mr Duggan was on his way to obtain a gun from a known drug-dealer. This could have been for various purposes if true; a person can hold a gun for a criminal to protect them, or they can wish to use the gun themselves, or deliver a gun to a third party for either of the previous reasons.
4. The police never actually saw or photographed Mr Duggan in possession of a gun at the alleged exchange point, but only observed him receiving a shoebox, which the police state they believed contained a gun.
5. The police forcibly pulled over the taxi in which Mr Duggan was a passenger, and Mr Duggan exited the vehicle when armed police approached.
6. And here’s where the accounts start to diverge. The policeman who shot Mr Duggan claims that he saw a gun in Mr Duggan’s hand. One eyewitness stated that it was clearly a mobile phone.
7. An armed policeman shot Mr Duggan twice. Once in the arm, and once in the chest. Mr Duggan died from these gunshot wounds. One of the bullets fired hit another policeman in his radio, lodging there.
8. No gun was found on or near Mr Duggan.
9. Following the shooting, the police state they conducted a search of the area. An unfired gun which was not ready to fire, with no fingerprint or DNA evidence on it, inside a sock, was found over a fence six metres from where Mr Duggan died.
10. The police claim that Mr Duggan must have thrown this gun over the fence when he realised he would be caught. The jury agreed with this claim, judging that it was likely that Mr Duggan threw the gun out of the window of the moving taxi before it was stopped by police. At least one eyewitness, on the other hand, states that the police must have planted the gun. Initially, the Independent Police Complaints Commission reported that several policemen at the scene had testified that the gun had been thrown over the fence by a policeman. This report was later retracted by the IPCC, for unknown reasons.
11. After this killing, the police force via the IPCC told the press that Mr Duggan had not only had a gun, but had fired on officers prior to being shot himself. This was a lie. The only policeman who was shot at the scene was shot by another policeman.
12. The IPCC themselves effectively tampered with the crime scene by approving that the cab that Mr Duggan had been travelling in was to be moved away from the crime scene, and then returned some time later. Stafford Scott, one of the members of the local community liaising with the IPCC investigation, gives a fascinating account of how ridiculously tainted the investigation was, here.
“In all of my years of engagement with the Met, I have yet to witness such a shoddy investigation. It is time we recognise that we need a body truly willing and able to investigate the police.”
– Stafford Scott (Link)
Stafford Scott also published a very good analysis of the verdict itself.
Many people are angry about this verdict. They should be angry. The case itself is deeply suspicious to anyone who knows much about the history of police misconduct, deaths in custody and extra-judicial violence by police. But in the main the irate public don’t seem to understand that the problem was less with the verdict, and more with the legislation that inevitably led to the verdict. They seem to be unaware that there is actually no law against armed policemen killing unarmed people in the course of their duties, per-se. That is to say, an armed policeman can shoot someone without any penalty at all, as long any old random person… or another policeman happens to have told the police that their victim might have a weapon on them at the time.
The reason that the verdict of Lawful Killing was delivered by the jury in the recent inquest… and the reason that it was- sadly- the only verdict they were ever likely to return, is that the officer who shot and killed Mr Duggan claimed that he believed Mr Duggan was holding a gun, and was about to use it to shoot the police who had confronted him.
As can be seen from the instructions given to the jury, they were effectively instructed to treat the police officer as someone who has committed violence in self-defence. In other words, if the policeman claimed- as in fact he did- that he believed that Mr Duggan had a gun and was about to shoot, the jury would effectively have to have concluded that the policeman was consciously lying in order to find his behaviour- and therefore the killing itself- unlawful.
Even if eight to ten jury members had been found who had a sufficient mistrust of the police to make such a judgement, a decision of unlawful killing would have almost certainly been overturned- as it was in previous comparable cases- at judicial review, to be replaced by either a verdict of lawful killing, or the more nebulous “open verdict”.
Conclusion: As soon as the policeman who shot Mr Duggan claimed that he honestly believed he and his colleagues were in danger of being shot, he, his colleagues and the police force as a whole were safe from any legal ramifications of his action.
But one question suggests itself: Even if the policeman’s belief was honestly held (which isn’t at all certain), was it a reasonable belief? Is it reasonable to shoot an unarmed person- a person who had never been convicted of a serious violent crime- just because you think they might have a gun, even when you have not seen a gun at any point during surveillance of the suspect? Is it reasonable for a policeman to assume that a man who has never been convicted of a violent crime will suddenly become murderous and suicidal, and to demonstrate this by waving a gun at armed police? Is it reasonable for a specially trained professional firearms officer to confuse a small mobile phone with a gun wrapped in a sock? You be the judge.
A Brief History of Some Dodgy Police Killings
Some people’s attitude to the Duggan inquest verdict consists of the poorly reasoned: “Hurr, if you’re a gangster you’ll get shot innit, what’s all the fuss about?”
My response to these people would be: Firstly, innocent until proven guilty, motherf***er. The police have been allowed by the press and the judiciary to use their own unproven suspicions to justify their own actions in this case, which is frankly ludicrous. Secondly, the police don’t just do this kind of thing to people they suspect of being gangsters. For example:
In 1999, a man named Harry Stanley was shot to death by police in London.
– He was carrying a recently repaired table leg in a bag at the time of his death.
– He was not engaged in any criminal endeavour at the time.
– The police stated that they had received an anonymous tip that an “Irishman with a gun wrapped in a bag” had been seen in the area.
– The police approached Mr Stanley from behind, shouted to him, and when he turned to face them, they immediately shot him dead.
The officers involved got away with this killing, because they claimed- just as the Duggan killer claimed- that they had an honestly held belief that they were about to be fired upon by Mr Stanley. And because of the anonymous tip mentioning a gun, they got away with this.
Additionally it’s worth noting that an open verdict was recorded by the inquest jury in this case, was appealed by the family and changed to a verdict of unlawful killing, but was then appealed again by police, and the verdict was finally changed back to an open verdict, which it remains to this day.
Secondly, we have the famous case of Jean Charles de Menezes.
In the days following the famous July 7th bombings in London, Police mistook Mr Menezes for a terrorism suspect. Several armed officers pursued him onto an underground train at Stockwell station, pinned him down without identifying themselves as police, and shot him eight times in the head. He had no backpack, nor any tool belt which might have concealed a bomb. The police lied repeatedly to the public following this killing, variously claiming that there was no CCTV footage of the incident available from station cameras, that they had identified themselves as police when confronting Menezes, that Menezes had run away from them, and that he had jumped over station ticket barriers rather than using a ticket, thus raising suspicion. All of these claims were later established to be utter lies, through CCTV footage, photographic evidence and eyewitness testimony.
The police tried their best to manipulate the investigation into the shooting. Senior police officers even personally lobbied members of parliament to attempt to influence the outcome. This is outrageous behaviour by any measure.
An open verdict was recorded at the inquest into Mr de Menezes death, though the police service were fined for failing in their “duty of care” to Mr Menezes. In other words, we the public paid a fine for a killing perpetrated by police on one of our own.
Azelle Rodney was shot without legal justification by police in 2005. He was in a car with suspected drug dealers, but was not armed nor seen to be armed when he was shot six times in the face and chest by an armed policeman after the car had been forced off the road by police vehicles. The killer stated that “Everything about [Azelle Rodney’s] actions led me to believe that he was fully ready to fire with a fully automatic weapon.”, which is effectively the same defence used by the police in all the above cases, very much to their benefit.
Unusually, this year a verdict was delivered stating that Mr Rodney’s death had no legal justification. But let’s see how long that verdict stands if it’s appealed by the police.
James Ashley was unarmed and naked in his own flat when he was shot to death without warning by armed police who had crept into his home in the dead of night in 1998. Police hoped to find large amounts of drugs in the flat, but in the end only found a small amount of harmless cannabis.
Grave statements were made by independent investigators about police conduct during and following this incident, and indeed, one senior officer resigned as a result. But the policemen who entered Mr Ashley’s flat and shot him dead continued to serve as officers, and in fact sued the force themselves for what they regarded as the terrible psychological trauma they had suffered. This was a farce. A bad joke.
Once again, the only substantial result from the investigation of this case is that the family of Mr Ashley received compensation, therefore the public were effectively left holding the bill; paying for a killing perpetrated by the police.
These cases and many others highlight the fact that the problem with the Duggan case isn’t related to his alleged criminal background at all, because such things have happened to totally innocent people time and time again in the past. Instead, it’s a problem relating to the rights and responsibilities given to police officers.
Rights and Responsibilities of the Police
The core of the problem with the laws relating to police violence, and armed police shootings especially, is that policemen sent out onto the streets and into people’s homes are given the same rights to self-defence as- say- a homeowner defending his or her home from armed invasion are given.
If you find an intruder in your bedroom and whack them with a hammer, killing them, you can claim that you had a genuine and reasonable belief that they were likely to harm or even kill you. This will allow you to use a self-defence argument in court, and will help that argument succeed. Likewise after shooting someone to death in their own home, or on a public street, a policeman can claim that they had a genuine and reasonable belief that the victim was likely to harm or kill them (or others), without having to offer any modicum of additional evidence to support their claim.
The ludicrousness should be obvious; self defence laws are in place to protect ordinary untrained people thrust into situations not of their own making, who have to make snap judgements about saving their lives or the lives of their loved ones. But armed police on the other hand are only ever sent into situations where firearms or other dangerous weapons have been reported to be in play, or are likely to be in play. This is therefore not an unexpected situation thrust upon an unsuspecting policeman minding his own business, it is a planned engagement where risks are known beforehand. We should expect a greater degree of care and circumspection from armed police, than we expect from a man who finds a stranger in his bedroom. At the very least, we should expect that the policeman will give a suspect the time to drop a gun, if indeed they even have a gun, before opening fire. This did not happen in any of the above cases, and police are not legally bound to give such time before opening fire.
This is not to say that police men and women should have fewer rights than members of the public, but merely that they should have different rights. In the same way that corporations were given some of the same rights as individual members of the public, and this has (predictably) resulted in monstrous injustice and inequality, giving police the same rights as average members of the public when it comes to self defence is predictably going to result in the following (current) situation:
Armed police are only sent out to situations where firearms or other dangerous weapons may be present.
Armed police therefore can always claim that they have a legitimate and earnest belief that they’re about to be shot/blown up/whatever.
This means that Armed police always have a self-defence plea ready-made, whenever they’re sent out on a call, regardless of what happens during the callout.
Result: Armed police can- in practical effect- shoot whoever they want without penalty.
In the press, there has only been roughly one police-related death every year for the past few years reported which might be compared to the Duggan case. This is a small number, to be sure. But for every police-related death which is obviously dodgy, there are many police-related deaths that are dodgy, but less obviously so. And for every death, there are many non-fatal beatings and injuries that are dodgy. And for every beating, there are many arrests that are dodgy. And the police routinely get away with this by claiming “self defence”, no matter how ludicrous the claim might be, as in this case of the G20 protester hit by a police thug. This continues in major part because the burden of proof is always on the public to prove conscious and intentional misconduct on the part of the police. And proving that is nearly impossible at this time, as long as the police involved stick to their cover stories.
This is not the police force, nor the legislation, I want.
I want armed police to be forced to give people time to recognise them and even if they’re holding a gun at the time, to give the person time to drop said gun before blowing their face off.
More broadly, I want a police force made up of people who are willing to take reasonable risks to ensure that they don’t shoot, or beat, or harm, or arrest the wrong person.
And I want the claims of “self defence” given by police to be held to a higher standard of scrutiny than self defence claims made by members of the public.
I want the responsibility of the police to protect the public, even those they suspect of committing a crime, to trump their trigger-happy desire to punish and dominate. And I want that to be supported by robust law.
After all, the police are meant to serve the public interest, not merely the interests of the corporate state and their own juvenile gung-ho impulses.
Isn’t that the kind of thing we bloody well pay them for?