By Cahal Milmo
Some 831 days after Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by police with seven bullets to the head, the first public declaration of blame was made when the Metropolitan Police was found guilty yesterday of making 19 catastrophic errors in the operation which led to his death.
The conviction of Britain’s biggest police force at the Old Bailey for failing in its duty to ensure the safety of the public brought immediate calls for Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to resign.
Mr de Menezes, a 27-year-old Brazilian electrician, was killed by armed officers on 22 July 2005, after he was mistaken for one of the men behind the failed suicide attacks on London Transport the day before. Despite two inquiries by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, no charges or disciplinary action has yet been brought against any of the officers involved.
At the dramatic conclusion of an unprecedented four-week trial, the force was convicted of committing a succession of mistakes during a surveillance operation on the block of flats in south London where Mr de Menezes lived.
The failed operation resulted in the Brazilian being allowed to board two buses and a Tube train despite pursuing officers believing that he could be Hussain Osman, one of four fugitive bombers who had lived in the same apartment block.
The court heard that during a six-hour period on 22 July, 19 key failings took place that included an “inexplicable” four-hour delay in sending a team from the CO19 firearms unit to support the surveillance team and a critical breakdown in communication in the “noisy and chaotic” control room which led to senior officers, led by “Gold Commander” Cressida Dick, wrongly believing that Mr de Menezes had been identified five times as Osman.
Mr Justice Henriques, the trial judge, said he accepted the botched operation was “very much an isolated breach brought about by quite extraordinary circumstances”. In an unusual move, the jury added a rider to its verdict saying that Ms Dick, now a deputy assistant commissioner, bore “no personal culpability” for the failings that led to Mr de Menezes’s death.
But the judge underlined that the Yard had fallen short to a “significant and meaningful extent” and significant aspects of its conduct remained unjustified: “One person died and many others placed in potential danger … There was a serious failure of accurate communication which has not been explained.”
The force was fined £175,000 and ordered to pay costs of £385,000 after it was found unanimously guilty of a single charge of breaching section 3(i) of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, which requires all employers to do everything reasonable to protect the public from harm during their activities. The jury took less than five hours to reach its verdict.
The family of Mr de Menezes expressed fury at the conduct of the Yard and its lawyers during the trial, accusing the police of a “sickening” attempt to smear the Brazilian by suggesting his behaviour and personal life could have contributed to his death. The jury was told a post-mortem examination showed Mr de Menezes had taken cocaine — although it was highly unlikely the drug could have still been affecting him on the day of his death — and had a forged immigration stamp in his passport.
Ronald Thwaites QC, for the defence, said it was possible these factors explained why the Brazilian had allegedly behaved in an “aggressive and threatening manner” as armed police approached him in a London Underground train carriage. Police were also accused of manipulating a composite photograph of Mr de Menezes and Osman to make the two men look more alike. The claim was strongly denied.
Harriet Wistrich, the solicitor for the de Menezes family, called for a “full and fearless” inquest now to be held into the events of 22 July, insisting that evidence presented in the trial and available elsewhere justified the bringing of manslaughter charges against individual officers.
The 19 failings outlined by the prosecution
1. Failing adequately to communicate Commander McDowell’s strategy to the officers who took over the running of the operation on 22 July
2. Failing adequately to plan for or carry out his strategy for controlling the premises
3. A ‘confused and inconsistent’ understanding among the Scotland Yard control room officers and the surveillance officers of what the strategy was for Scotia Road
4. Failure to deploy officers to stop and question people emerging from Scotia Road
5. Failure to ensure that a CO19 firearms team was there when Mr de Menezes emerged from the communal doorway
6. A failure to have a contingency plan to deal with people emerging from the flats before CO19 arrived
7. Failure to stop and question people emerging from the flats
8. Failure to identify a “safe and appropriate” area where those leaving could be stopped and questioned
9. “Inaccurate and unbalanced” briefings given to firearms officers at Leman Street and Nightingale Lane, gave them “inadequate and inaccurate information”
10. Information about the identification of Mr de Menezes, his clothing, demeanour and “likely level of threat” was not properly or accurately told to officers, particularly firearms officers;
11. Failure to ensure that doubts about the correctness of the identification of Mr de Menezes were communicated to officers in the control room in Scotland Yard
12. Failure by control room officers to satisfy themselves that a positive identification of Mr de Menezes as the suspect had been made by the surveillance officers
13. Failure to deploy firearms officers at relevant locations in time to stop Mr de Menezes getting on to the bus and in the Tube station
14. Failure by firearms officers to satisfy themselves that a positive identification of Mr de Menezes as the suspect had been made by surveillance officers
15. Failure to take effective steps to stop Tube trains or buses or take other “travel management steps” to minimise the risk to thetravelling public
16. That Mr de Menezes was allowed twice to get on to a bus and to go into the Tube station despite being a suspected suicide bomber and emerging from an address linked to a suspected suicide bomber
17. Failure to give a “clear or timely order” that Mr de Menezes must be stopped or arrested before entering Stockwell Tube station
18. Failure to give accurate information to Commander Dick about where CO19 officers were when she was deciding if they or Special Branch officers should stop the suspect
19. Failure to minimise the risk inherent in arresting Mr de Menezes by armed officers “whether in relation to the location, timing or manner of his arrest”