Britain continues to deal with police bunglers in time honoured fashion – by promoting the culprits. Last month, Cressida Dick was recommended for promotion to Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner. She was the police commander in charge of the “shoot-to-kill” operation that led to the pointless death of Jean Charles de Menezes after the London bombings last year.
The Brazilian Menezes was the classic case of the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was shot seven times in the head on a tube train at Stockwell station on 22 July, 2005 by an anti-terrorist squad. They were acting on a tip-off a day after the failed explosions on London’s transport system. Police had been on hair-trigger alert since the 7 July bombings two weeks earlier which caused havoc on London’s peak hour transit system. That morning three bombs exploded within a minute of each other on London Underground tube trains. A fourth bomb exploded on a bus nearly an hour later in Tavistock Square. The 7 July bombings killed 56 people including four suicide bombers, and also sent the city's transport and mobile telecommunications infrastructure into chaos. A fortnight later, terrorists struck again at London Transport with bombs. This time, only the detonator caps fired and the bombs themselves did not go off. No one has come up with a convincing explanation for the simultaneous failure of four bombs on tubes and a bus, though everyone is grateful. There were no injuries and the bombers escaped.
London Police mounted a major manhunt for the attempted bombers. One of the rucksacks they left at the scene held clues. It contained a gym membership card belonging to Hussain Osman, suspected of a bomb attack at Shepherd's Bush tube station. In addition, the number plate of a vehicle spotted at a suspected terror training camp in central Wales had been tracked to a Tulse Hill address. It was a three-storey block of flats in Scotia Road. The suspect address was No 21 on the third floor of the block; De Menezes lived a few doors down at No 17. Police immediately staked out the premises. On the following morning surveillance officers saw a man emerge from the communal entrance to the flats. That man was Jean Charles de Menezes.
Menezes was a 27-year-old electrician. He was born in the small town of Gonzaga in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. He moved to Sao Paulo to live with his uncle at the age of 14, attended high school and became a qualified electrician. He moved to London in 2002 and had lived and worked legally in the UK. He spoke excellent English and lived in the Tulse Hill flat with two of his cousins. That morning Menezes had received a phonecall to fix a broken fire alarm in Kilburn. As he left the building a surveillance officer compared him to the CCTV footage photo of the bombers. In his own words, felt "it would be worth someone else having a look", but "was in the process of relieving himself". Because he was urinating, he didn’t immediately turn on a video camera to send pictures of Menezes to operational headquarters. And so, on the officer’s ambiguous word, Police thought they had positively identified a suicide bomber.
They tracked Menezes as he walked from his flat to the bus stop. Plain clothed officers followed him aboard the bus. He got off at Brixton underground station. However Menezes found Brixton was still closed after the drama of the day before. He quickly reboarded the same bus before it pulled away. The officers tracking him stated they were satisfied that they had the correct man, as he "had Mongolian eyes similar to Osman Hussain's". Hussain was the Ethiopian suspect from the previous days bombing captured on CCTV. On this Asiatic resemblance, Menezes’s fate was sealed.
Cressida Dick, the Police Commander immediately authorised her officers to prevent Menezes from entering a train. S019 took control of the operation. S019 are Specialist Firearms Command, the armed branch of the Metropolitan police. Menezes continued on to Stockwell unaware he was being trailed by armed units. He rang a work colleague to say he was running late due to the tube station closures. He entered Stockwell station, picked up a free newspaper and used his Oyster Card (London Transport’s electronic ticketing system so called because "the oyster protects a pearl in much the same way that the card protects the cardholder's money") to pay his fare. He slowly descended the escalator to the platform. A train was arriving so he ran the last few metres to catch it. Menezes boarded the train and found a free seat.
What happened next is not entirely clear. Sue Thomason, a freelance journalist from south London, was on the train. She said she heard 11 shots in 30 seconds. She initially feared terrorists had opened fire on commuters and ran for her life along the station platform. One of the surveillance officers, code named "Hotel 3", said he followed Menezes onto the train. He sat near him and waited for the firearms officers from S019 to arrive. When they showed up, Hotel 3 got up. He the blocked the door from closing with his foot and shouted out “he’s here!” pointing to Menezes. The firearms officers boarded the train and challenged the Brazilian. In a panic he stood up and advanced towards them. Hotel 3 grabbed him, pinned his arms against his torso, and pushed him back into the seat. Hotel 3 told his version of what happened next: "I then heard a gunshot very close to my ear and was dragged away onto the floor of the carriage. I shouted 'police' and held up my hands. I was then dragged out of the carriage by an armed officer who appeared to be carrying a long-barrelled weapon. I heard several gunshots as I was being dragged out."
Horrified commuters scrambled away from the train and fled the platform. One of the last to leave said it was empty apart from four or five men in plain clothes who were standing over the body of Menezes. The operation bore all the hallmarks of a Special Forces “shoot to kill” operation. The newly formed Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), trained by SAS officers had carried out the hit.
The only problem was that almost immediately they knew they had got the wrong man. He wasn’t carrying a bomb. His driver’s licence didn’t match the name they were expecting. Met commissioner Sir Ian Blair went on the offensive and publicly declared that there were "direct links" between the shooting and the investigation into the bombers.
Meanwhile Menezes’s friend De Avila was waiting for him in Kilburn. He rang his mobile regularly during the day without an answer. The police finally rang him in the early hours of the following morning. Detectives arrived at his house. ‘The detective wouldn't tell me what had happened to him," said De Avila, "but he said: 'We suspect this person is a terrorist'". De Avila refused to believe them. "I know him," he said. "We have a social life together. He doesn't come from Muslim peoples. I told him he was a Catholic.” De Avila’s testimony was the final nail in the police case. They killed the wrong man.
It suited the Police to continue the public line they had shot a suspected terrorist. Ian Blair requested the Home Office to delay an investigation while they concentrated on finding the 21 July attackers. The police also issued an incorrect statement Menezes was followed by surveillance officers and his "clothing and behaviour added to their suspicions". They claimed Menezes had refused to respond to police shouts and had jumped over the barrier. But the Met CCTV footage didn’t support that and that footage has now mysteriously disappeared.
At 5pm the following day, Scotland Yard formally admitted the victim was not linked to the anti-terrorism operation. A second statement four hours later revealed the name of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian national. The Brazilian government released a statement expressing its shock at the killing, saying that it looked forward "to receiving the necessary explanation from the British authorities on the circumstances which led to this tragedy."
That explanation has yet to arrive. The first part of the enquiry has now concluded but its findings have not been released to the public. The second part on Ian Blair’s handling of the aftermath is continuing. Osman Hussain was arrested in Rome in July and extradited to Britain to face charges of attempted murder. Menezes was the only victim in the end. Bombing tubes is cowardly and vicious and Britain is right to vigorously seek justice. But paranoia, fear and incompetence show that a shoot-to-kill policy should never be supported as a means of fighting suburban terrorism.