De Menezes: What are the lessons that need to be learnt?

Yesterday, an Old Bailey jury ruled that London’s Metropolitan Police had broken health and safety laws and unnecessarily put the public at risk in the hours before fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Yesterday, an Old Bailey jury ruled that London’s Metropolitan Police had broken health and safety laws and unnecessarily put the public at risk in the hours before fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. De Menezes, an innocent Brazilian electrician, was mistaken for a suicide bomber and shot dead at Stockwell Tube station the day after the failed 21 July bombings in 2005.

The prosecution set out nineteen allegations of police failings and the Metropolitan Police now faces a fine of £175,000 and was ordered to pay £385,000 in costs. However, Met Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said the trial had found ’no evidence at all of a systematic failure by the Met police‘. Despite widespread calls for his resignation, he has stated that he will stay and that it will be his ‘personal charge to ensure that the lessons learnt from the death of Mr Menezes are incorporated into our training, our policy and our operations.’

But what lessons? Especially, as after the verdict was delivered, Mr Justice Henriques said: ‘This was very much an isolated breach brought about by quite extraordinary circumstances.’

Are the lessons related to tightening up procedures so much that a breach cannot occur in even the most extraordinary circumstances, or ensuring that such circumstances do not occur in the first place?

To my mind the answer lies in two comments made before the verdict was announced:

Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, warned that whatever the verdict ‘Police officers must not fear that they will be second-guessed by those operating with all the benefit of hindsight and by legislation not designed for such situations.’ And Sir Ian had warned before the trial began that a guilty verdict would have profound effects on policing, arguing that officers would be left in a difficult position of not being able to use their judgment in emergency situations, out of fear of breaking the law.

The first comment says that there is a significant difference between the information available to a commander on which to base decisions during an event than after an event. The second says that if a commander makes the wrong judgment decision based on the information available at the time this may constitute a breach of the law.

Judgment decisions are made on an ‘awareness’ of a situation and awareness is a combination of ‘prior knowledge’ and a ‘perception of the reality’. Prior knowledge is to do with training and experience and perceptions of reality are firmly grounded in the information you know about a particular event.

The jury made a point of saying that the commander in question, Cressida Dick, was not personally culpable in any way therefore today’s guilty verdict essentially says that the problem lay with Cressida Dick’s perception of reality rather than her knowledge or experience. In short the Metropolitan Police were criminally negligent in the provision of information support to their command and control structure.

Sir Ian was therefore probably right when he said that a guilty verdict will have a profound effect on policing. To rectify this, the whole police command and control structure will need a fundamental overhaul.

Within the police, senior management only becomes involved in an incident if it cannot be dealt with at a local level. Unlike a military campaign, where a commander has all of the information from which to first form an operational plan and then his/her chain of command acts accordingly – police operate the other way up. This means that when decisions are escalated, the senior commander, who needs to look at the picture as a whole, has to assemble the information from which to make operational decisions each time from scratch using communication systems that are generally not built for the transmission and fusion of vast quantities of information. This in turn means that the success or failure of the situation is completely dependent on the senior commander asking for and receiving the relevant information – yet the commander has only just been brought into the situation and therefore does not necessarily know what questions to ask.

For example, if Cressida Dick had known that Brixton underground station had been shut that morning then De Menezes getting off a bus and then getting back on it again would have looked entirely rational. However, London Underground’s maintenance schedule would probably not be high on her list of urgent information requirements when there is suspected suicide terrorist on the loose. Likewise, it takes a long time to assemble all the information you need to make an informed decision from scratch which means that decisions are either (a) taken too early which if things go wrong you will be accused of shooting from the hip or (b) too late which means you run the risk of making the decision too late. In the case of De Menezes, it appears Cressida Dick was forced to make many of her decisions too late.

All of the above can be very easily avoided by the use of modern information systems – however, there has been a reluctance to embrace such technology. I suspect much of this is to do with culture – a senior police commander is known by the close shaves and good decisions in the face of adversary, and not by his/her ability to calmly manage a situation. Police control rooms are very different to military control rooms. The former are busy and noisy with lots of macho posturing whilst the latter are much less exciting but more efficient.

Dr Sandra Bell
Director, Homeland Security and Resilience Department
1 November 2007

The views of the author are not meant to represent the views of RUSI.


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