Friday, 10 December 2010

A question of restraint: what prevents police officers from killing protesters?

On the Today programme this morning, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner was defending the police handling of yesterday’s student protests.

When asked about the (idiotic) attack by protesters on the car carrying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, he praised the “restraint” of the firearms officers who were there.

The implication appeared to be that, but for this “restraint”, the protesters would have quite properly been shot dead. The Commissioner furthermore described the restraint of his officers generally, not by reference to the officers following training, policies and procedures, but in terms which meant he could commend the officers’ moral qualities.

The impression one formed listening to the Commissioner was that it is only a matter of simple discretion for his officers not to be more heavy-handed or even lethal in dealing with protesters.

Any lapse would be understandable, and it would be merely a moral failing of the officer.

One test of a liberal society is the point at which killing protesters becomes acceptable, at least to those with the power to do the killing.

And this morning it seemed clear that, unless the Commissioner misspoke or that one simply misinterpreted him, that the point is now the discretion of any police officer with a gun.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


bat020 said...

this story from the Independent shows how close they got to killing someone:

Lee Griffin said...

When it comes to firearms officers the discretions, rightfully, comes under each individual holding the gun. They are trained to assess the situation and take the shot at the right moment, rather than to simply shoot on order.

I think that in a way he is right to say the word "restraint", but perhaps wrong to insinuate that this isn't a decision that firearms officers are trained to deal with at length, thus really mitigating the chance of them ever not exercising "restraint". As such I can only see the use of the word as inflammatory, a subtle threat to protestors where in reality there is no threat to be made.

There is a lack of trust on this issue since De Menezes I know, but firearms police are, ironically perhaps, one of the few areas of the police force that I respect as they more often than not are trained to think for themselves, as it is they as individuals that face a potential manslaughter charge every time they pull the trigger.

Bella Caledonia said...

The British State is irredeemable

Michael said...

Jack, there's nothing new in this. Of all homicides committed by the police, such as the man with the chair leg in a bag, the naked and unarmed man in his bed, the car thief whose killer was reported by his own police sergeant, let alone the execution of Charles Menezes in which he was held by two officers while a third emptied his Glock into the poor devil, to take a few off the top of my head, not a single one was prosecuted.

The British police are out of control now. If they have firearms, they have absolute immunity. And if you read books like "THE GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK" by Steve Collins, you can see why. He explains how he witnessed riots, and after watching some police violence inflicted on a protestor, decided to join the police so he too could enjoy beating up other people. Nice guy. He was permitted to join the firearms unit when he retracted his claim he wanted to serve the public and replaced it with a much more aggressive statement.

The police used to be slightly safer when they had pistols of their own. They practised with the public shooting community. That meant they were a) safer with their own guns because they were permitted to practise; b) more stable and sensible because they were forced to mingle with "real" people.

Now they get all the practice ammo a generous government provides (25 rounds a week or so, when before they would use 600 in a weekend to maintain their skills) and little exposure to the public.

They have little respect for the public - is it surprising?

Pete Darby said...

During the last round of protests, I was alarmed by Gadget opining that maybe the protesters should have been made to stand outside in the cold until an adult had told them they could come in at an earlier age, then they would have learnt their lesson.

I boggled. Because, call me crazy, blind compliance with arbitrary authority when it becomes carpiciously abusive is kind of the thing I DON'T want my children to learn.

But apparently, Gadget is a bleeding heart liberal compared to the senior officers in the met...

Anonymous said...

Hold on. Didn't you guys see what the police had to endure? Thugs with steel bars and bricks were right in their faces. The police were restrained because bleeding heart liberals have similarly complained in the past. Perhaps next time we should just let the protestors burn the House? There is right and wrong here. Make sure you are on the right side.

Dominic Sayers said...

I was hoping you'd tell us what the law says.

I know that police officers are unlikely to be held to account under a Tory government, but it would be nice to know what the rules are supposed to be.

Steve said...

It's clear that the wording of "restraint" is wholly inappropriate. Shooting protestors, even if engaged in a violent attack on property, is clearly not acceptable. Indeed, only in the most extreme circumstances, with a significant threat to life could that possibly be justified.

However, in this case it would be appropriate to at least praise the armed officers present for their judgement. Frankly a violent attack on the the car of the next in line to the throne is always going to be fraught with danger. I would venture that a similar attack on a presidential car in France might result in the same.

This is not a question of the moral right of a police officer to shoot a protestor. It's a question of an officer having to make the right judgement call that this was not a threat to the Prince of Wales life. Frankly, it's not a position I would want to be in to decide if this was, indeed, a terrorist attack under the guise of a violent protest.

It's simply that if there is a violent attack in such circumstances then a tragedy could occur. It just requires a slip of judgement in the heat of the situation, in the dark with all the confusion that brings on.

Of course there's always the option not to arm Prince Charle's bodyguards if you want to eliminate that possibility, but that's a policy decision, not an operational one.

So I suspect the spokesman could do with more care in the choice of words, but it was cool judgement, and whoever was present deserves some praise.

Will said...

Surely at the point at which they're actually attacking the royal car, they've stopped being 'protesters' and are just dangerous people running wild.

Seems to me that being shot might be a pretty obvious outcome of attacking something which is guarded by armed police.

It doesn't seem to have much in common with Menezes or chair-leg-man, who weren't actually doing anything criminal at the time they were shot.

Lee Griffin said...

The rules are simple, you can only shoot someone when they are an imminent threat to yourself or others, and when you shoot you shoot to kill.

As soon as you've shot someone you're put on suspension pending an investigation, and if it's determined that the officer could have reasonably known that there was no life threatening situation, they'll be arrested and charged for manslaughter or murder.

Ok, so they might be slightly more complicated ;) But this is what it ultimately boils down to, and why no police officer trained properly would have even thought about shooting the protestors near the Royal car yesterday.

Dave said...

I like this article. I agree the officers showed restraint but I would have certainly drawn my weapon if I was one of those officers. Of course I would have made a point of keeping the safety on but it would have made some of the reckless thugs stand back and perhaps fill their pants.

What I hate are these armchair commentators who think their opinion matters, people who slate the Police and give comments on how it should be ran, If you think you know better join the Police. If not shut the hell up. Also, folk who state things as if its fact when they're commenting on something they were not their to witness and are giving more their own interpretation of the matter, Yes Michael I'm talking about you.

I dont think this is common knowledge but did you know that as soon as a Armed Officer discharges a round from his weapon he is immediately suspended and his split second decision will then be analised and ripped apart over several months whilst 'liberal' people point the finger and call him a murderer, but they wouldnt have the nuts to do what he does.

Schroedinger99 said...

And, since we (and the police can), I think, be almost certain that a police officer who killed a protester would never face criminal penalties, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner is merely "telling it like it is" when he suggests “restraint” is the only thing that is preventing the shooting of protesters.

@adambanksdotcom said...

@Lee Griffin: You seem to be describing the firearms officers we deserve, rather than those we necessarily have in real life. This is why the transcripts of the Mark Saunders inquest, obtained and uploaded by David (, are so valuable.

They paint a picture, in their own words, of firearms officers blithely wandering out of their depth, creating a situation where they felt (inexplicably) that they had no choice but to open fire and then doing so.

In that case nothing about the officers' actions or decisions was considered sufficiently out of the ordinary to merit any action against them.

There is in practice no reason for firearms officers to have in mind the possibility of manslaughter charges, since no such charges have ever been brought, despite several high-profile cases of error, mistaken identity and overreaction.

The only thing that will prevent more unnecessary deaths is a culture of reserving lethal force as an absolute last resort against individuals who pose a clear and immediate lethal threat to others. Stephenson's talk of commendable "restraint" is exactly contrary to this.

It should be taken for granted that had anyone opened fire on a group of mainly teenage protesters in a crowded shopping street, it would have been a national scandal resulting in the prosecution of officers, the restructuring of the police units involved and fundamental changes to the way the royal family is protected.

But apparently it isn't.

Lee Griffin said...

I think that given the amount of police presence in the UK with firearms there is extremely few incidents of people questionably using their firearms. Out of 30 incidents only a few can be described in the terms you're framing them.

And yes, it's a scandal that those cases haven't gone the way they should, I am not apologising for those cases.

What I am saying is that the majority of the time the vast majority of armed officers make reasoned and rational decisions that result in no shots fired, and no death caused. We'd be rational to remember this.

Botogol said...

the police protecting Charles will have pretty clear orders on using their guns : guns are to be used only when the principal's life is in danger.

I would think yesterday the police must have come very close to making that call. Remember those policeman pulled out of their car by a mob at a funeral in northern ireland way. that showed what can happen when a car is isolated.

don't forget only two weeks ago someone at student demo tried to kill police officers by throwing a fire extuingisher on to them

Steve said...


You need to check your facts. There have been two such charges brought against police officers since 1990.

In 1995 the officer that shot Devid Ewin in his car was acquitted of manslaughter on his trial. In the first the jury failed to reach a verdict.

In May 2001 PC Chris Sherwood was acquitted of manslaughter and murder (and four other officers were charged).

Of course a charge is not the same as a conviction, and the lack of a conviction does not mean that there are not errors of judgement (I think manslaughter would required negligence or worse, whilst murder would imply intent).

Not a lot of charges of course, but the number of police shootings in the UK is, by international standards, very low. You are far more likely to be killed by a police car of course.

tucola said...

Oh, come off it - it would be an enormous scandal if armed police in this country opened fire on demonstrators.

And I think that it is a very strained reading indeed of the Commissioner's comments to suggest that with his remarks about "restraint" he was implying at all that it would have been proper to shoot protestors and that it was simply a matter of police 'moral' discretion as to whether or not to do so.

Important personages came under attack. Armed protection officers were on hand. They assessed the risk. Nobody got shot. And nobody got killed as a result of the attack. Turns out the officers showed appropriate restraint.

And I wouldn't say that the Commissioner was necessarily wrong to remind people that if you decide to violently attack vehicles or premises containing important personages, there may be armed protection officers on hand who will have to make split-second judgments of how much of a threat you really are, which may result in you getting shot.

Gert said...

Dave says he hates 'armchair commentators' and presents two choices: join the police or shut up.

The third option is to hold the police to account by informed debate. The same goes for all public services. The absence of scrutiny leads to corruption. Intelligent debate can help one to understand the reasons for and impact of actions.

One doesn't have to be a trained chef to go to a restaurant and judge it a bit rubbish or identify the under-cooked chicken as probable cause of food poisoning.

Nor does one need to be a trained police officer or lawyer to consider shooting of protesters, or other civilians, to be prima facie wrong, and to want to know the extreme circumstances where it could be demonstrated to be a proportionate response.

NicholBrummer said...

A good illustration why an official route is agreed on for protests in advance: so the protesters stay on that route, and protest. Policing strategies matter.

However, in the previous protests, the police followed the tactic of harassing and kettling those simply following the route.

Protesters quickly found the counter strategy of splitting, rejoining, following random alternative routes. It also incentivises and attracts the more adventurous kind of protester, or even people just thriving on lawlessness.

Of course, this situation also introduces the risk that traffic will randomly run into protesters, including traffic of the royal kind.

The situation would have clearly been avoided if protesters would trust that they could follow a pre-arrange route without getting molested, or detained in the winter cold. That trust is gone.

TheE17Tory said...

What a load of cobblers...the police showed unbelievable restraint in the face of sustained, hour upon hour of vitirol, abuse, objects from snooker balls to iron posts thrown at them, being repeatedly charged at, seeing a number of their colleague susutain serious makes me sick that these media studies students are more than happy to violently rage against the police but then cry as soon as the police act back...absolutley pathetic...if you cant take it, then dont give it in the first place...I think we should be criticising the police should be being criticised for being too SOFT handed...when the protest quickly turned to violence (and lets get rid of this 'tiny minority' fallacy right now, anyone watching BBC News 24 yesterday can attest to that)I dont see why the water cannon wasnt brought in and more mounted officers didnt just disperse these thugs...if it were football fans in the same situation it would have been dealt with far more quickly and efficiently...its only because they now run scared of the bleeding heart liberal media...the fact you chose to criticise the police who did an incredibly diffcult job yesterday and not the scum grafitting war memorials, intent on wanton violence, so called anarchists rioting because the state wont pay for uni fees (irony of ironies) is a sad inditement on but typical of the liberal elite systematically destroying this country over their dinner parties in hampstead...there, rant over!!!

Stephen said...

Didn't the Chinese shoot some student protesters a few years ago? Tijuana street or something?

Oh, that's right - it was the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was horrific and it remains a prime example of abject inhumanity.

Does anyone (except Dave who displays an uncommon level of intellect, restraint and a finely developed sense of internal consistency) seriously think shooting students is a good thing for police to do with their Thursday evenings?

Calum said...

I think (not having seen the original interview) that the context here is the presence of the Royals. They are a high profile target and, sadly, they live in constant danger of physical attack.

While driving them through the middle of the protest was clearly a ludicrous decision, it is pretty understandable that any protection officer in that position would be extremely nervous with the kind of protester that was running loose at the time. The couple could quite easily have ended up hauled out of the car and battered on the streets.

Ask yourself how you would have felt to stand there, firearm in hand, your principal in serious danger, facing a baying mob? How would you have reacted? Acknowledging this - even in such ambiguous language - is hardly unreasonable. Part of the deal when you take on such a job is to know that your superiors will back you if you do your job properly.

Stephen said...


Forgive me but from that it seems like it is about as easy to be killed by a meteorite as it is for a UK police officer be convicted of wrongly shooting someone. That seems implausibly fortunate. There's never been a single bad egg having a bad day in all the armed police departments of the UK, ever?

No matter what we're using to have such infallible police officers we should bottle it and give it out with ASBOs.

andreasmoser said...

I think you are overdramatising a bit when you speak about killing protesters just because someone applauded police officers for their "restraint".
Even if these officers had eased their restraint, it would not necessarily have resultet in deaths because they also have the option of firing warning shots in the air or shooting at somebody to wound.

Another question: If you were in a car and hordes of aggressive people were smashing your windows and throwing things at you, and you had a gun, would you shoot?
I couldn't rule it out.

Having said that, I have attended protests where people were killed (in Iran: and given the disproportionate power of protesters and police, I cannot see many situations where it is "necessary" to shoot and kill. In most instances (certainly the ones that I have seen in Iran), it was done to intimidate and spread fear.

Steve said...


Precisely who is it that you believe has been suggesting shooting students (or protestors - they aren't all necessarily students) is a good idea? That's either commentators on this blog, those in official positions or commentators in a wider sense?

Any such event would cause an enormous uproar.

As for police fatal shootings, I'm not sure there's much evidence of murderous intent. There are certainly instances of mistakes having been made or the system failing. However, to get a conviction it has to be proved beyond all reasonable doubt, which is inevitably going to be difficult high barrier to cross in an operational context.

it's not as if we have have gangs of policeman going round shooting street children, as happened in Brazil.

The figure for police fatal shootings in the UK averages around one and a half per year. So in 20 years that's about 30 cases to be looked at, and as any statistician can tell you, trying to extrapolate some picture from what is a very rare event is difficult.

I would be interested to see evidence showing any comparable western country where the either of the stats above are significantly better. I'm finding it very difficult to find more than a handful, and the extreme examples, like Brazil, or the US, distort the view.

Darius said...

The Police force should be a graduate entry profession, with all members approached, rather than applying, to join.

This would go a long way to raising standards in all areas, though it would not, of course, be a universal panacea.

There are very significant thuggish, racist, sexist, homophobic, rude, lazy, inefficient and corrupt percentiles within the Police and, as my father says, the ambition to be a policeman/woman should invalidate you from doing so.

I was at the demo yesterday and there were wholly unacceptable levels of violence and provocations on BOTH sides. The Police, though, should know better.

Botogol said...

I wonder if the police protetion officers were in dereliciton of duty NOT shooting.

The principal and his wife and driver were alone in a car isolated, surrounded by a mob attacking the car, one of which uses a weapon to smash the window.

In training that's probably the sort of scenario where the corect answer is to sraw a weapon and fire a warnnig shot. Otherwise.. what's the point of you?

Stephen said...

There's an awful lot of people on this thread using bodyguard-y words like "the principal". Has this topic brought out the mall ninjas?

oldebabe said...

Speaking of law enforcement (of whatever kind)at protests and the shooting of students, how nice of you Brits not to mention the Kent State University event... still a horror to all involved, and still remembered here.

The Mad Hatter said...

We had similar problems in Canada, during last summer's #G20 summit. It's taken far too long, but we are finally getting action on the problems, and it looks like a bunch of cops are in deep trouble.

At some point, the voters in the U.K. need to push for the same thing.

Simon said...

"Shooting protestors, even if engaged in a violent attack on property, is clearly not acceptable."

On the contrary, if shooting them is reasonably necessary to prevent the commission of a crime, it is acceptable. It would be wrong to let the crime be perpetrated when it could have been prevented.

On the other hand it is preferable to prevent crimes without shooting people unnecessarily.

But my reading of the Commissioner's remarks is not that the bodyguards refused to shoot, but that a situation was avoided when even an accidental shot might have occurred. Even with the best trained person, there is less risk of a shot being fired if he is not holding the weapon than if he is.

An attack by a number of people was taking place and the Duchess had been struck - a bodyguard has to be pretty capable and confident at that point to refrain from drawing his weapon.

Bob said...

as far as JCM shooting goes it was a cockup from start to finish.

The Surveillance operator (from memory code-named "hotel 7" at the inquiry) was off relieving himself when JCM exited the flats under watch and confirmed positive ID when it was not possible that he could have done so..

after the fact Officers modified log books to evade culpability.

The "Gold" officer Cressida Dick (and no i'm not a sad mall ninja..deplore the Brechtian Stormtrooper porn that seems to have developed in a democracy; dangerous job though CO19 is)

Dick said this surveillance officer was "indisposed"
Any doubt as to the real target poses a real risk to the public and it certainly it wasnt reconfirmed should have had him apprehended ASAP rather than followed down a tube.