The shooting death of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes at the hands of British anti-terrorism police remains a hot topic in the world's media. The incident has raised important questions about the "Rules of Engagement" that anti-terrorism units use when dealing with terrorist suspects.
From all accounts, it appears as though Menezes was under surveillance from the moment he left his house. He then caught a bus to Stockwell tube station. When he arrived there the police challenged him and ordered him to stop. For whatever reason, Menezes responded to the order by fleeing into the station, where he jumped the ticket barrier, ran down an escalator and then tried to jump on a train. The police caught up with him at that point, where they restrained him.
It was what happened next that has caused so much controversy. Rather than placing him in handcuffs and taking him away, one of the officers produced a handgun and fired five shots into Menezes' head, killing him. From the reponses given by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair, it appears as though killing a potentially dangerous terrorist suspect is part of the rules of engagement that these anti-terrorism units are operating by.
Menezes was considered a potential suspect worth pursuing because he was apparently wearing a blue, fleecy top - unusual considering the warm weather. Some witnesses apparently stated that he appeared to be wearing a belt with wires coming out, very much like a bomb belt. When he started running into the train station after being challenged, he was obviously considered a potentially dangerous terrorist suspect - which meant that the pursuing officers had the authority to kill him before he could detonate any device strapped to his person.
The problem is that, because Menezes has now been identified as innocent, the reasons why he was initially regarded as a suspect worth killing now come under scrutiny.
There is no law against a person becoming a suspect and being investigated by police. Of course Menezes, being tan-skinned and living in a house under investigation, would be tailed. The fact that he was wearing a fleecy top and what appears to be a bomb belt can easily be attributed to his work as an electrician. As an electrician, he may sometimes have been forced to work in areas that are cold and/or dirty, and may require a long-sleeved fleecy top to warm and protect him. His work belt, carrying tools and wires, could easily be mistaken for a bomb belt if viewed quickly and from a distance by a concerned police officer. His intention to enter the tube station is what warranted his arrest.
But none of these things warranted the chase and shooting. That only happened because he ran from the police. Why did Menezes do this? Some opinions from BBC website readers have criticised Menezes for running since it clearly identified him as a potential threat. "Thomas", a reader from Guernsey, argues that he should have stopped and that the police were right in doing what they did, despite the tragic consequences.
But there are two very good reasons why Menezes may have panicked. The first is that he was confronted by a number of plain clothes officers who were not clearly identifiable as being police. The second is that, before moving to London, he spent his life in the slums of São Paulo in Brazil. Living in a slum that is visited often by crime gangs would have instilled Menzes with a sense of fear of anyone pointing a gun at him - especially anyone that was not clearly identifiable as being from the police. This sense of fear would have been heightened by the events of the recent bombing.
The most likely scenario is this: After stepping off the bus, Menezes heads towards the tube station. Suddenly there is a shout, and he turns his head and discovers three of four men brandishing pistols and shouting directly at him. Not knowing who they are or what they want, his base instincts take over - he runs for safety. The rest of the story we all know.
Fear of danger is what drove Menezes to run. If he had known they were the police, he would probably have stopped. Maybe an ordinary Briton may have realised that the people following were police, but Menezes did not. Even if the officers themselves had cried "stop, police!", he may not have understood them, with fear and under-developed English language skills getting in the way.
Had the rules of engagement been different, Menezes may have had a great story to tell his grandchildren about the day he was wrestled to the ground by police for being a terrorist suspect. Police detain suspected criminals all the time who turn out to be innocent, so his experience was not unique. But that is not what happened. Menezes was restrained by the officers and then executed.
There is no doubt that these rules of engagement failed dismally. There are all sorts of procedures that police are given to prevent innocent people dying at the hands of the law. The arrest and detention of an innocent suspect can easily be undone once their innocence is firmly established. This is not the case once five bullets have been drilled into their head.
Now that these rules have been made public knowledge and, through Ian Blair's comments, vigorously defended, there is now a real fear that this "shoot first, ask questions later" procedure will lead to more deaths of innocent subjects. This does not instill confidence in those innocent people who know that they may one day be arrested on suspicion of being involved in terrorist activities. These people are essentially any dark-skinned male aged between 20 and 40 who wears warm clothes and/or a backpack.
There is now a real possibility that anyone who is challenged by gun-toting plain clothes police will run for their lives, even knowing that their pursuers are police officers. Why? Because they now fear being killed by these officers even if they obey their commands.
Imagine you are a 24 year old Pakistani walking through the streets of London. Suddenly a car pulls up across the road and three people with guns get out and begin yelling at you. One of them holds up a badge and clearly yells "police!". What do you do?
If that happened to me I would stop immediately and hold my hands above my head - but then, I'm white. I know that I don't look like a terrorist. If I was a 24 year old Pakistani I would seriously doubt whether I would get out of this alive because I know that I am a suspect - even though I am innocent. There is also cultural distrust mixed in with all of this making the decision to obey these commands even harder to do. Instinct is likely to take over.
The death of Jean Charles de Menezes should not have happened. Every effort is made by the police to ensure that innocent lives are protected in the normal course of their duty. Terrorist attacks have complicated matters, but the events at Stockwell station have shown that the current rules of engagement are too risky. The chance of innocent lives being lost has proven greater than the chance of the suspect detonating a bomb.
From the Department of "Wha Happnin?"
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
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