Page last updated at 12:01 GMT, Friday, 2 November 2007

Will verdict make police over-cautious?

Police officers
Will health and safety fears hamper vital operations?

With the Metropolitan Police guilty of breaching health and safety laws over the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, fears have been expressed that the verdict will make officers over-cautious.

Is London Mayor Ken Livingstone right to warn that the fight against terror will be hampered by the jury's decision?

Mr Livingstone said the court's verdict was "disastrous" for anti-terrorist police.

"If an armed police officer believes they are in pursuit of a terrorist who might be a suicide bomber and they start making these sort of calculations based on, 'How's this going to be seen... am I going to be hauled off to court?'

"At the end of the day, mistakes are always going to happen in wars or situations like this. The best you can do is to try and make the potential risks the minimum possible."

My fear is over-caution
Sir Chris Fox

He said being forced to consider health and safety legislation, which was not designed for the kind of situation that has been under scrutiny, could be the difference between a terrorist getting shot and the deaths of dozens of people.

Rejecting calls for Met chief Sir Ian Blair to resign, he said mistakes would be made in anti-terrorist operations.

'Brave and stupid'

Sir Chris Fox, former president of the Association of Chief Police Offices (ACPO), argues that a sensible balance must be struck.

He says emergency response is "always more risky", when people do "incredibly brave and sometimes incredibly stupid things" to save others.

He told BBC News: "My fear is over-caution. For example, had the two officers following Jean Charles tackled him before he got on the bus... and he had actually been a bomber, which they thought he was, then the experiences of suicide bombers in Madrid and other parts of the world is that they detonate their device.

Jean Charles de Menezes
Jean Charles de Menezes was shot seven times at Stockwell Tube

"The only way to stop them is with an armed officer.

"So if they had challenged him and the bomb had gone off, would the Metropolitan Police still have found themselves being prosecuted?"

The de Menezes shooting came after the British police had already absorbed the lessons of the Madrid bombing and other terrorist attacks - leading to the formulation of the Operation Kratos shoot-to-kill policy for known bombers and new rules on tracking suspects and keeping them under surveillance.

The guilty verdict will prompt more soul-searching within the police as to the best way to tackle suspected bombers.

Sir Chris said the verdict could help clarify how health and safety law might apply in such a situation and help the police service to organise itself to prevent such an outcome happening again.

He said he hoped police would not end up being more cautious than they should be.

My guess is that common sense will mean that actions aren't brought because everyone know knows the difficulties under which the police labour and I think it's important not to lose sight of that
Richard Clayton QC

"The judge very specifically said this was a one-off. It was an extraordinary day where many things apparently went wrong, resulting in an awful climax.

"I would hope people will look at the systems and the information processes so commanders know what's going on, firearms teams know what's going on and that they react sensibly, which is what health and safety legislation is about, rather than an ill-informed reaction, which is, 'Better do nothing, better wait until we're absolutely 100% certain,' when, of course, hesitation sometimes loses."

Richard Clayton QC, who specialises in bringing cases against the police, says it is important to remember that police are subject to ordinary laws, just like any other member of the public.

But he acknowledges that some leeway may be needed where police are trying to protect the lives of a large number of people - for example from a potential terror attack - when it has to be accepted that officers may sometimes do dangerous or stupid things.

However, he does not expect police to face many prosecutions over health and safety breaches during emergency situations.

He told BBC News: "My guess is that common sense will mean that actions aren't brought because everyone knows the difficulties under which the police labour and I think it's important not to lose sight of that."

He said there was a danger that police could be too cautious but he added that it was important that police were seen to be accountable when something did go wrong.




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