London Indymedia

Shoot-to-Kill & the deadbeat press

Jeff Parks | 30.09.2005 18:14 | Repression | London

Some newspapers have carried strongly worded articles on the Met's shoot-to-kill policy since the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell station, but a review of their reporting prior to his death reveals a lazy attitude to police pronouncements, with the press happy to sell the public a fantasy of heroic policemen pitted against superhuman terrorists poised to strike at any moment.

shoot-to-kill in the press
shoot-to-kill in the press

December 2001
The Evening Standard reported that "Scotland Yard has sent a high ranking officer to Israel amid fears of the threat of terrorist suicide bombers" and that "Scotland Yard has already drawn up plans to increase the number of armed officers on the streets in the event of a terrorist threat". The Guardian added that the "decision to seek advice from Israeli security forces was taken by Assistant Commisioner David Veness, head of special operations, who is developing an anti-terrorist strategy to deal with a post-September 11 world." and quoted a Met source as saying "we've had to start again and consider all possibilities."

May 2002
The Sunday Times revealed the current thinking of the Association of Chief Police Officers' suicide bomber working group: "One suggested tactic is to use snipers to shoot suicide bombers in the head, aiming to sever the brain stem." The Guardian followed-up it previous report stating that "a group of Scotland Yard officers, led by the [sic] deputy assistant commissioner, Barbara Wilding, visited Israel and Sri Lanka recently for advice on strategy to cope with suicide bombers."

November 2002
The Daily Telegraph reported that "Police officers disguised as vagrants are to take to the streets of London with specially trained mongrel sniffer dogs in an attempt to stop suicide bombers."

January 2003
The Sun was the first paper to hint at the meaning of the new policy in an article about an al-Qa'ida plot to kill the Queen or Tony Blair, stating that "armed cops have been ordered to shoot any potential suicide bomber on sight" and adds that "The Metropolitan Police's SO19 firearms unit is recruiting more officers to cope with the terrorist threat. Hundreds more cops are being trained to use firearms." the story also mentioned the "discovery of the ricin poison factory in North London."

The Sun's claims were backed up by an article in Police Review magazine on new guidance for police, "Officers will be given information on what they should do in the event of a spontaneous attack, as well as how to respond if police are given prior warning of an incident" but "For security reasons, guidance details are not being made public, but the general advice to officers will be not to intervene or challenge a suicide terrorist." They quoted Barbara Wilding on the guidelines: "It is very simple. Do not intervene and do not challenge." before noting that "Ms Wilding has also liaised with the authorities in Israel, Russia and Sri Lanka on the subject of suicide attacks." The Police Review article was referred to in the Daily Telegraph, including the oblique statement that "Armed officers would also be deployed".

Meanwhile the Police Complaints Authority criticised SO19 for their "proactive tactics", finding that the Met was twice as likely as other forces to open fire on a suspect, the Evening Standard reported that (then) Deputy Commissioner Ian Blair had "furiously rejected" the PCA's claims and that "Mr Blair said he was concerned about the effects of the report on the morale of the police which struggles to recruit firearms officers."

February 2003
Another scoop for The Sun, which claimed to have seen the police's "confidential training dossier" calling it a "chilling manual telling how to trap and kill suicide bombers", but the article did not use the term 'shoot-to-kill' instead quoting the police's euphemistic instruction to "deliver a critical head shot" because the "aim is to identify, locate and neutralise the threat." They also quoted an example scenario claimed to be from the manual. The article's positioning is a striking illustration of the paper's priorities, tucked into the corner of a double-page exposé revealing that Bush and Saddam had bought the "same designer shoes for £600".

We all know the Daily Mail's priorities, so it should be no surprise that their first mention of the new tactics came in an article on border control, "Sir John Stevens warned that the the struggle against Al Qaeda will fail unless Britain can secure its porous borders' against terrorists [...] He also appeared to hint that firearms officers have been authorised to shoot suspected suicide bombers but would not elaborate for operational reasons [...] Deputy Assistant Commissioner Barbara Wilding has carried out research on the threat of suicide bombers and how to deal with them. Her confidential report - in which she effectively calls for a shoot to kill policy - has been circulated to chief constables." The Evening Standard echoed their concerns about the foreign hordes and was equally ambiguous about the police's position: "Although Sir John [Stevens] stopped short of saying the Metropolitan Police had a shoot-to-kill policy for suicide bombers, he appeared to indicate the officers had been authorised to open fire."

March 2003
The Sunday Times catalogued potential terrorist weapons which might be used "against Britain in revenge for the invasion of Iraq" including "deadly nerve agents" and "dirty bombs". Echoing The Sun's claims the previous month they said "Officers at SO19, the specialist firearms unit, have received detailed briefings on how to respond to the threat of a suspected suicie bomber. Marksmen have been told to shoot to kill by firing straight into the suspect's head rather than into his upper body, which may be wrapped with explosives. Confidential briefing documents, circulated to police across Britain, state that snipers will be deployed as soon as a suspect is sighted." The same "critical head shot" document was quoted.

The Daily Telegraph reported that in "the abscense of specific information [...] Uniformed and covert officers on duty in central London or at specific events would be briefed to look for individuals fitting the profile, carrying heavy bags or wearing large coats possibly concealing explosives." Without offering a source they went on to state that "There is a clear recognition privately in police circles that the only effective way to deal with people trying to blow themselves up in central London or elsewhere is to 'shoot to kill'."

May 2003
Bomb blasts in Riyadh and Casablanca sparked a week of stories on the threat of suicide bombers and the police's planned response. The Evening Standard started with "Hundreds of extra police have been given firearms training and, if there are suicide attacks, marksmen are expected to be deployed to key targets with orders to shoot to kill." The Daily Telegraph quoted the president of ACPO as saying "We are very lucky" to have escaped suicide bombings and that "It's down to the public to tell us about people who they are suspicious of." In response "officers who follow a suspected suicide bomber have been told to 'channel' him into an area where, when confronted, he would cause minimum casualties. However, there is a clear recognition that confrontation might be too risky and, to avoid mass casualties, officers could be left with no option but to shoot to kill."

In articles about heightened security measures around parliament several papers carried similar stories based on police briefings, The Independent: "it was revealed that Scotland Yard had formed an elite armed unit, with shoot-to-kill orders, dedicated to hunting down suicide bombers." The Sun: "Scotland Yard has armed undercover squads for the first time and given them orders to shoot-to-kill suspected suicide bombers." Express-On-Sunday: "Elite undercover squads trailing suspected Islamic terrorists have been armed and told they must shoot-to-kill if they believe there is a risk of attack." The Sunday Times: "Scotland yard has also issued advice to its elite undercover firearm squads on how to tackle suicide bombers by shooting them in the head."

Buried in an opinion column by Peter Preston was the news that "police on the streets now have 'shoot-to-kill' terrorist orders (according to the Times)." This was The Guardian's only mention of the new tactics before July 2005.

August 2003
Police Review reported that "officers are to be instructed on how to spot and deal with suicide bombers", the guidance would be "included in a forthcoming Home Office counterterrorist manual" and would cover "how to gather quality intelligence to spot potential suicide bombers."

The Sunday Telegraph was the first paper to cover this, in a frontpage article that began "Police have been ordered to 'shoot to kill' suicide bombers following intelligence warnings that an al-Qaeda terrorist attack in Britain may be imminent", further in it said "Sir John [Stevens] has now ordered that the hundreds of armed officers in the capital must shoot to kill if they believe that someone is trying to detonate explosives carried on their body or in a vehicle. His instructions do not alter the law or the rules governing police use of firearms, but they make clear that if officers fear loss of life they will be justified in killing the suspect." As if that wasn't clear enough they added "One senior officer said: 'He's made it plain that if we think we are facing a suicide bomber, we should shoot first and ask questions later."

The next day other papers picked up the story, all taking a similar line, The Daily Express: "Police will be trained to target suicide bombers and shoot to kill them as fears grow of an Al Qaeda terrorist atrocity in Britain." "Police in London have been put on high alert with armed officers ordered to shoot to kill suspected suicide fanatics. The Metropolitan Police is now briefing other forces on the same tactics." The Daily Mirror: "Police will be ordered to 'shoot to kill' suicide bombers amid fears that al-Qaeda may be planning terror attacks in Britain. Front-line officers are to receive guidance on spotting and dealing with bombers. And they will be told that if they fear people will be killed, shooting a suspect dead will be justified." The Daily Mail: "Police have been ordered to 'shoot to kill' suicide bombers amid renewed warnings of a terror attack in the UK." The Independent: "Police in London have been put on their highest state of alert after warnings were received that an al-Qa'ida suicide attack may be imminent. [...] Undercover police teams tracking suspected Islamic terrorists in London were armed for the first time earlier this year and instructed to shoot to kill if they believed a suspect was about to detonate a bomb."

October 2003
The Independent, in an article on the preparations for George Bush's state visit reported that, "Up to 4,000 police officers are expected to be used to cover the demonstrations during the visit from 19 to 21 November, and the total cost will be more than £1m. One of the biggest concerns for the intelligence services is a suicide bomb attack. Armed officers will be on duty and will have the authorisation to open fire under exceptional circumstances."

November 2003
On the eve of the visit The Sunday Times was more explicit, stating that "Security was tightened across Britain yesterday as police and intelligence services learnt that Al-Qaeda terrorists were "on the move" and could be preparing for a spectacular terrorist attack to coincide with the state visit by President George W Bush [...] Instructions circulated to police last year gave them authority to 'shoot to kill' anyone they suspect to be a suicide bomber." The Daily Mail ran a similar story: "A ring of steel will be thrown around Buckingham Palace amid fears of a possible suicide bomb attack [...] Suicide bombers have not yet struck in Britain, but it is thought to be only a matter of time before terrorists use their moste effective form of attack [...] Police undercover teams have been advised to adopt a shoot to kill policy if they believe someone is about to blow himself up."

December 2003
The Sunday Times offered some festive cheer: "Officers carrying Heckler & Koch semi-automatic machine-guns were yesterday ordered to patrol Oxford Street amid fears that terrorists might be planning to target Christmas shoppers in London's West End. Scotland Yard is deploying officers from SO19, its specialist firearms unit, to set up a series of roadblocks in the capital where suspicious vehicles will be stopped. Armed officers have been instructed to 'shoot to kill' those they suspect of being about to set off suicide bombs."

March 2004
Two protesters climbed the clocktower at parliament to coincide with a Stop The War Coalition march through London, the News Of The World took a typically measured tone reporting that "Furious MPs last night demanded to know why policed ignored 'shoot to kill' orders and allowed two potential terrorists to climb Big Ben. The pair carried rucksacks and mobiles, just like the monsters of al Qaeda [...] they were Greenpeace activists protesting about the war on Iraq and were armed with banners instead of bombs. But under Metropolitan Police orders the pair could have been gunned down. Armed officers have been told to shoot to kill anyone they suspect as a suicide bomber. [...] Seething Labour MP Tom Watson demanded to know why police did not intervene straight away. He said: 'These men were lucky not to be shot on sight.' [...] Greenpeace boss Stephen Tindale said the Westaways, from Lewes, East Sussex - who were released on bail last night - had been planning the stunt for a couple of months [...] He added: 'We told the police they were from Greenpeace.' A perfect cover story for the terrorists stalking London." The protesters were never charged.

A few days later the Daily Mirror front-page carried what it claimed were details of the response to this security breach: "The planned replacement of Westminster's historic iron railings by a forbidding 15ft-high barrier topped with razor wire is stark evidence of the security threat now facing Britain [...] Police with shoot-to-kill orders will patrol Parliament's perimeter". Inside the paper they had more of the same beginning "Machine gun-carrying police instructed to shoot to kill are to patrol in front of Parliament's new ring of concrete. [...] A shoot-to-kill policy is being planned following the ascent of Big Ben by two anti-war protesters. A minister close to Operation Fortress Common said: 'If somebody scaled the White House, they would be shot immediately. We must start taking security here seriously if we want to avoid a strike at the heart of our democracy. Shoot-to-kill sounds incredibly extreme but until perople see that we have such measures in place we will continue to be seen as a joke. The intruders at the weekend were lucky not to be made an example of."

April 2004
The Sunday Telegraph revealed that "Police lost track of a suspected suicide bomber because their radios do not work on London Underground. After an anonymous tip-off that an Asian man was on his way to detonate a suicide bomb [...] After successfully locating the man, officers trailed him. [...] As he entered an Underground station, however, uniformed officers lost sight of him and could not radio colleagues to guard the exits at other stations because neither their old radios, nor their recently issued replacements, work underground. The man was later apprehended and turned out not to be a suicide bomber [...] The failure of the police radios in the incident, which took place in October, has only just emerged, but it is understood that the potential problem has been known for at least three years."

An accompanying article on guidance issued to officers states that "Police documents seen by The Sunday Telegraph also disclose that although there is no profile for suicide bombers, police have drawn up a list of patterns of behaviour for officers to look out for. These include suspects who are 'sweating, mumbling, possibly praying, recently clean-shaven, looking anxious, wearing bulky clothing not in keeping with the weather or event, holding something in the hand or a clenched fist or having a wire or toggle protruding from an overtly carried bag'. [...] The 'Six Cs' card gives similar tips to officers. The 'Six Cs' are: 1. Confirm - the location and description of suspect. 2. Cover - withdraw to 50 yards away from the suspect to a point where it is possible to maintain visual contact. 3. Contact - your supervisor and request more police assistance. 4. Civilians - direct to a place of safety but not if this is likely to compromise or further endanger the public or other officers. 5. Colleagues - prevent other officers coming into the danger area. 6. Check - for further suspects or devices." The article also reveals the dehumanising term the police use internally to refer to suicide bombers - "person borne explosive".

The Daily Mirror reported that "Scotland Yard has built up a massive armoury of weapons to deal with a possible terror attack. Thousands of Glock guns and Heckler and Koch rifles have been stockpiled to arm 2,000 police should an emergency be declared. [...] The Yard's elite firearms unit - SO19 - has been ordered to train the Metropolitan Police to deal with 'every eventuality'. This includes how to use weapons - including a shoot-to-kill policy if a suicide bomber is identified."

November 2004
Ian Blair wrote an article for The Sun on the Harry Stanley 'strike' in SO19. "The reaction of armed police officers to the suspension of two colleagues following an inquest verdict of unlawful killing is a reminder of the challenging and dangerous job they do - and the need to change the law. [...] If the Government is to review murder legislation then surely there must be a place for measures which protect armed police from the prospect of serious criminal charges and prosecution."

The Guardian reported that his boss had the same opinion: "Sir John Stevens, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, said the law needed to be reviewed in the light of the threat from terrorists faced by armed officers. He made his comments at the successful conclusion of peace talks with member of the force's SO19 firearms unit [...] Sir John said: 'We need to have another look now at where we are in terms of protection for officers in the use of firearms. Since September 11, of course, we are having to handle the possibility of suicide bombers and suicide attackers attacking London.'" In a background article on SO19, the paper stated that "there has been increasing concern among rank and file officers and police chiefs that they are operating in almost impossible conditions. Some claim they are increasingly unsure about the circumstances in which they are justified in firing [...] Many support the commissioner's point that the rules need to be changed in a post-September 11 world."

December 2004
The Daily Mail reported on a speech given by Ian Blair: "Armed police who shoot and kill members of the public by mistake should not be charged with murder, according to the future head of the Metropolitan police. Sir Ian Blair said officers who open fire by accident should be treated like surgeons who make errors on the operating table."

A Police Review article revealed that "the Met decided to 'urgently revisit the legal basis' of the anti-terror Operations Kratos and Clydesdale after members of the force's firearms unit laid down their weapons [...] it is understood that they involve senior officers ordering a police marksman to shoot suicide bombers in London." This was part of an "eight-point action plan Sir John Stevens, Met commissioner, personally helped to put in place last month to get the firearms officers back on duty. [...] Police Review understands that the SO19 officers were concerned about their legal position if they were ordered to take a 'head shot' of a suicide bomber." Unlike earlier Police Review articles on the police policies this story was not covered by any newspaper.

February 2005
The Independent On Sunday reported that Ian Blair, newly promoted to Commissioner, is still "calling for a change in the law to give police marksmen who shoot dead innocent people greater protection from prosecution. [...] He said: 'These are such split-second decisions. But is it reasonable to put a man on trial for murder in those circumstances? I say it's not.' [...] He said the mistakes which resulted in the loss of life were 'appalling' tragedies for the officers concerned as well as relatives of those killed."

Yard Expert Targets Suicide Bomber Threat Evening Standard 19|12|01 p5
Yard Sends Officers To Israel The Guardian 28|12|01 p4
Police Sniper Plan To Foil Suicide Bomb Attacks The Sunday Times 12|5|02 p7
UK Plays Down Attack Reports The Guardian 23|5|02 p4
'Tramps' And Mongrels Seek Bombers Daily Telegraph 13|11|02 p8
Snipers Guard Queen & Blair: Al-Qa'ida Assassination Threat The Sun 23|1|03 p1
Police Issued With Guidance On Dealing With Suicide Bombers, Police Review, 24/1/03, p6
Rules For Police On Suicide Bombers, Daily Telegraph, 25/1/03, p4
Met Anger At Claims Of 'Gung Ho' Culture In Gun Squads, Evening Standard, 30/1/03, p2
How To Kill Bombers, The Sun, 8/2/03, p4
Seal Our Borders To Keep Out Terror, Daily Mail, 20/2/03, p4
Met Chief: We Must Have Proper Control Of Our Borders, Evening Standard, 20/2/03, p6
Britain Fears Attack At Home, The Sunday Times, 23/3/03, p10
Police Monitoring Potential Terrorists, Daily Telegraph, 31/3/03, p8
Top Police Officer Puts 'Every Town And City' On Suicide Bomb Alert, Evening Standard, 19/5/03, p2
We Have Been Lucky To Avoid Attacks, Says Police Chief, Daily Telegraph, 20/5/03, p2
Parliament Protected By Extra Armed Police, Daily Telegraph, 23/5/03, p4
Landmark Road Closes In Terror Crackdown, The Independent, 24/5/03, p10
Suicide Bomb Risk KO's Queen's Walk, The Sun, 24/5/03, p2
London Faces Bank Holiday Bomb Alert, Express-On-Sunday, 25/5/03, p2
Police Will Get Draconian New Powers To Fight Terror, The Sunday Times, 25/5/03, p8
Return Of Mr Unspecified-Threat, The Guardian, 26/5/03, p15
New Guidance Will Help Officers Spot Potential Suicide Bombers, Police Review, 6/8/03, p6
Police Given Shoot-To-Kill Orders In New Terror Alert, The Sunday Telegraph, 10/8/03, p1
Shoot To Kill: Deadly Brief For Police Who Spot Terror Suspects, Daily Express, 11/8/03, p8
Police Widen 'Shoot To Kill' Policy In New Suicide Bomb Alert, Daily Mail, 11/8/03, p2
Shoot To Kill: Cops Told To Gun Down Suicide Bombers, Daily Mirror, 11/8/03, p2
Terror Alert After Warning Of 'Imminent' Al-Qa'ida Attack On UK, The Independent, 11/8/03, p2
Security Services On High Terrorist Alert For Bush's British Tour, The Independent, 31/10/03, p9
Police Snipers Take Position To Meet Al-Qaeda Threat, The Sunday Times, 16/11/03, p2
Ring Of Steel To Surround Bush On Palace Visit, Daily Mail, 17/11/03, p2
Suicide Terrorists Plan Jet 'Kit Bombs': Armed Police Deployed For Shop Attacks, The Sunday Times, 7/12/03, p6
What A Bloody Farce: MP Fury As Gun Cops Fail To Stop 'Bombers' Break-In, News Of The World, 21/3/04, p6
Fortress Commons: Parliament Will Get 15ft Wall To Thwart Terrorists, Daily Mirror, 24/3/04, p1
Shoot To Kill: Order To Armed Parliament Cops, Daily Mirror, 24/3/04, p4
Police Lose Track Of 'Suicide Bomber' As Radios Fail On Tube, The Sunday Telegraph, 4/4/04, p6
Revealed: The Dos And Don'ts Of Dealing With Al-Qaeda In London, The Sunday Telegraph, 4/4/04, p6
Yard's Gun Arsenal To Fight Terror, Daily Mirror, 10/4/04, p2
We Must Stand By Our Hero Gun Cops (written by Ian Blair), The Sun, 3/11/04, p6
Legal Protection For Armed Officers Urged, The Guardian, 4/11/04, p16
By The Book: How Force Trains Its Firearms Unit, The Guardian, 4/11/04, p16
Met Chief's Gun Police Plea, Daily Mail, 3/12/04, p2
Suicide Bomber Operations Under Review After Suspensions, Police Review, 15/12/04,
Met Seeks Immunity For Armed Police, Independent On Sunday, 27/2/05, p2

Jeff Parks
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Display the following 6 comments

  1. Nice piece of real journalism — Read Chomsky
  2. It takes along time to SELL an idea to the publc... — twilight
  3. What's Wrong, Twilight? — Paranoid Pete
  4. Huh? — Norville Barnes
  5. analysis using above research — dave
  6. straight from the horse's mouth — northam


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