The chief of the Independent Police Complaints Commission has accused the Metropolitan police commissioner of dealing in “myths and selective facts” in his call for police to be given more trust in their decisions to shoot people.
Dame Anne Owers said Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe’s claim that her watchdog was increasingly treating firearms officers as suspects was not supported by the facts. She said delays in IPCC investigations were often caused by officers refusing to cooperate in interviews and withholding evidence.
Writing for the Times, Owers, who has led the IPCC since 2012, said: “Since 2010 we’ve completed 24 firearms investigations, eight of which related to fatalities. In all but three of them, including six of the fatal shootings, no firearms officer was ever treated as a suspect; they were all treated as witnesses.
“When police witnesses co-operate fully and early, we can complete our investigations much more quickly. By contrast, when they don’t – for example giving statements that simply say when they came on and off duty or refusing to answer questions at interview – it takes much longer. No one benefits, whether they are police officers or bereaved families.”
Owers’ rebuke to Hogan-Howe, who is soon to retire from his role as Metropolitan police commissioner, comes after he used his last set-piece speech to complain that officers were being put off from volunteering for firearms roles because they dread spending years under investigation, or even being put on trial.
“This a dangerous place to be – in two ways,” he told an audience at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence and security thinktank. “We simply don’t have enough people now wanting to do these jobs. The failure rate in training is high.
“Secondly, we can’t afford to have officers think twice because they fear the consequences of shooting someone. That’s how they get shot, or the public gets hurt or a criminal gets away with a gun.”
But his insistence that the public ought to have “less suspicion and more trust” in police decisions to shoot suspects drew a sharp riposte from Owers. “Rigorous independent scrutiny is not a threat; it is a protection,” she said. “If the police appear to shy away from this, there is a real risk to public trust.”
Owers’ intervention comes amid sharp criticism of Hogan-Howe’s comments by families of people shot dead by police. Margaret Smith, whose son, Jermaine Baker, was killed by an officer in December 2015, said: “It sounds as if the commissioner wants one law for the public and another law for the police.”
Baker was sitting in a car with two other men police suspect of planning to spring from custody a prisoner who was being brought to Wood Green crown court in north London. Five men, including the two in the car who survived the police shooting, were later convicted of an attempt to break a criminal out of a prison van.
A replica Uzi gun was found in the footwell of the back seat of the car. Baker, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, was pronounced dead at the scene. The officer involved, known as W80, was arrested by the IPCC on suspicion of murder 14 months ago and his case has been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service.
A second controversial case is that of Azelle Rodney, who was shot dead as he sat in the backseat of a car by officers who suspected him to be part of a gang on their way to stage an armed robbery in London in 2005. A decade later, the police marksman who fired the shots was put on trial and acquitted.
The length of time taken to bring that officer to trial is thought to be one of the factors uppermost in Hogan-Howe’s mind when he made his speech to RUSI. The prosecution came only after an inquiry found the killing to be unlawful and concluded that the account from the armed officer, Anthony Long, could not be true. Long shot Rodney six times in seconds with four bullets striking the suspect’s head.
Daniel Machover, the solicitor who represented Rodney’s family, said: “Bernard Hogan-Howe’s statement asking for ‘more trust’ in firearms officers is unwarranted and rings hollow at a time when numerous scandals have damaged public confidence in the police. Trust is not something that can be asked for. Both the police and the IPCC need to improve the way in which firearms incidents are handled immediately post-incident.”
The widespread sense that police have impunity when it comes to the killing of suspects, particularly those of black and minority ethnic groups, in armed operations has strained relations between police and the public. The 2011 shooting of Mark Duggan in north London triggered riots across the capital that spread throughout the UK and became the biggest riots in postwar English history.