Page last updated at 04:34 GMT, Saturday, 13 December 2008

A matter of life and death


Inside police firearms training

By Chris Summers
BBC News

An inquest jury has returned an open verdict in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian who was shot dead by mistake by police on 22 July 2005. What sort of training do police undergo?

Inspector Tony Kalli
The senses are the first thing that shuts down when you're under pressure
Inspector Tony Kalli

"The senses are the first thing that shuts down when you're under pressure," says Inspector Tony Kalli, one of Britain's most experienced firearms instructors.

"Your body starts closing down some senses - hearing drops off - so it can concentrate on senses like sight, which might save your life. It's called perceptual distortion.

"You will ask someone afterwards about the knife and they will go into great detail and say, 'It had 'Made in China' on it', but they won't remember what the person was wearing or what they said.

"It's natural because you instinctively look at the knife. It's not something you can turn off and on. It's simple fight or flight."

I must admit I thought he was exaggerating until I was put on the spot at the training centre run by the Metropolitan Police's elite CO19 firearms unit.

Situated on a quiet industrial estate just outside London, the force's 50m state-of-the-art facility comes complete with a mocked-up urban environment and even a Tube carriage, where role-playing scenarios can be played out.

Training scenario

After being shown some of the firepower at their disposal - including Heckler and Koch submachine guns, Glock self-loading pistols and shotguns powerful enough to punch a hole through a car door or body armour - it was time for me to be put to the test.

I was teamed up with ITN correspondent Angus Walker and we were briefed on the scenario we faced but were given little information about what we would find at the scene.

Firearms officers Ken and Ivor follow Jean Charles de Menezes
Firearms officers have to live with their mistakes over the Menezes case

Armed with a laser-firing handgun, and facing a large projector screen, we "walked in" on two men and a woman lying on the ground.

My immediate reaction was to focus entirely on what they were doing and I realised later that I had heard virtually nothing they had said, apart from some vague recollection about moving some furniture.

The first man began waving a knife around, but I only fired when the second man pulled out a gun. He fell to the ground and finally expired after making another lunge with his weapon.

When the scenario ended and we were questioned by Insp Kalli about what had happened and what we had seen, the omissions and the distortions were astonishing.

• We had both missed a vital clue - one of the men had been doing his flies up as we arrived - which might have given us an indication of what was going on.

• Neither of us could recount much of what had been said, which may explain why my "partner" had fired at the man with the knife, who was not posing a serious threat.

• We gave wildly differing descriptions of the two men. I said the knifeman had long blond hair, possibly in a ponytail and my partner said it was curly hair. In fact he was shaven-headed or balding.

• Bizarrely I recollected the knife being large, like a machete, and my colleague described it as being 9in long. In fact it was a kitchen knife, probably no bigger than 6in (15cm).

• If quizzed I would have been adamant that I had fired several shots at the gunman when he was on the ground. In fact I only fired once... and I missed.

When the action replay of the scenario was played my partner had fired four shots at the knifeman while I had fired at least one shot at the other man as he reached for something but before it became clear it was a gun.

A police firearms officer training with a Glock self-loading pistol
The firing range can improve accuracy but not judgement

As Insp Kalli pointed out we had fired 12 rounds between us before either of us, or the woman, had come under any direct threat.

If the incident had been captured on film and both of us had been real firearms officers we would both probably have found ourselves facing a disciplinary hearing or even criminal charges.

Referring to the huge discrepancies in our testimony, Insp Kalli said: "Just imagine what a well-paid barrister would have made of that."

The exercise reinforced the immense difficulties facing firearms officers.

The Metropolitan Police say firearms officers were deployed 2,352 times in the year up to 31 October 2008 - deployments being incidents in which the officers left a vehicle with a weapon.

I'm doing everything I can to prevent a repeat of the tragedy which occurred to the family of Jean Charles
Commander Jerry Savill
Only two shots were actually fired in that same year, causing the deaths of two people - divorce lawyer Mark Saunders, who was killed in Chelsea in May, and 40-year-old Andrew Hammond, who was killed during a domestic incident in Harold Hill in October.

But the black cloud hanging over all the CO19 officers is the death of Jean Charles de Menezes three years ago, at the height of the suicide bomber threat.

At the inquest Chief Superintendent William Tillbrook said CO19 training was "broadly the same" as it had been before the Brazilian was killed.

But he said police looked at how they could improve every day.

Commander Jerry Savill, head of CO19, said: "I'm doing everything I can to prevent a repeat of the tragedy which occurred to the family of Jean Charles and I'm also conscious of what happened to the two officers involved. No-one should lose sight of the consequences on them of opening fire."

But firearms officers are human and not Robocops and no matter how good the training is they are only as good as the intelligence they are given.

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