Wednesday 3 November 2004

Harry Stanley.

This seems to be one of those cases where all sides are wrong.

Two officers have been suspended after an inquest jury returned an unlawful killing verdict in the case of an unarmed man shot dead by police.

Harry Stanley, 46, from Hackney, east London, was shot in the head and the hand by the Met officers in 1999.

Mr Stanley was carrying a chair leg in a plastic bag which the two officers thought was a sawn-off shot gun.

Should he have been shot? Clearly not. Should the police officers be punished? They probably should: that's the nature of responsibility, like it or not. Yes, they have to make split-second life-and-death decisions; yes, they were following their training; but the fact that the decision was incredibly difficult doesn't excuse the fact that it was the wrong one — not when the stakes are that high. However, having seen what happened, should other armed police officers have to continue with their jobs? Well, obviously not. There is no requirement for a British police officer to be armed; the armed officers volunteer for firearms duties, and they are perfectly within their rights to unvolunteer. While the two officers who killed Harry Stanley should be held accountable, it does highlight the current situation for armed officers: follow your training, follow standard procedures, and you could find yourself up in court for an unlawful killing with precious little support from your superiors, who gave you the training and wrote the procedures in the first place. So what's the solution?

Well, first of all, most of the controversy surrounding this case is about public perception of the police force. The problem is that not only has this innocent man been killed, but that the police have been doing precious little over the last few years to arrest guilty men and have, in many cases, been helping criminals to victimise innocent civilians (though the police don't see it that way). When a police force who prevent crime and punish criminals harm the occasional innocent passer-by, people are more willing to give them the benefit of some doubt. When a police force who encourage crime and punish victims harm an innocent passer-by, why should the public forgive them?

Let's think, too, about the environment in which this happened. Gun crime is rampant in the UK at the moment, and shows no sign of abating. It is understandable that, in a city full of armed criminals, the police would take no chances with a man carrying what appears to be a gun. They are surrounded by violent crime, and act accordingly. This certainly goes some way towards excusing the actions of the officers. But why is there so much violent crime in the first place? Well, because the CPS do very little to punish violent criminals, letting them back out onto our streets at the earliest opportunity, and because the police absolutely insist that no innocent victims should ever defend themselves, even going so far as to arrest and prosecute anyone who does. So, while the violence of our society may help to excuse the police in cases like this, we should remember that the police have done a lot to help create that violence in the first place. As long as they insist that they are absolutely the only people allowed to act against criminals and to defend the public, they take on the responsibility of doing the job perfectly — not just very well, but perfectly. If they're unwilling to accept that standard, then they have to open the market up to some competition: let us defend ourselves, let us carry guns, and let us act against criminals.

In short, it's the police commissioners and chief constables, the CPS, and the Home Secretary who should be in the dock over this death, not a couple of their pawns.

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