London Police Guilty in Shooting Goof

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Peter Macdiarmid / Getty

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair speaks to reporters outside The Old Bailey on November 1, 2007 in London.

The police might normally be expected to celebrate a guilty verdict, but the outcome of the trial that concluded Thursday at London's Old Bailey courthouse caused consternation among the city's law enforcement officers. That's because the defendant was London's Metropolitan police force, in the dock over the death of Jean Charles de Menezes — the Brazilian electrician who was shot seven times in the head by police in a London underground station on July 22, 2005, in the tense atmosphere that followed the terror attacks on the city's transport system two weeks earlier and a failed attack the previous day. Standing outside the court after the verdict was delivered, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair acknowledged that de Menezes' death was "a tragedy," adding, "He was an innocent man."

Despite the verdict, the Brazilian's family and human rights campaigners say the trial failed to answer the question of why de Menezes was killed. The Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to charge individual officers with the shooting, and instead brought a case under health and safety legislation on the surreal grounds that the police had "failed to provide for the health, safety and welfare" of de Menezes and other members of the public.

The case highlights the dilemma facing authorities across the world responsible for confronting terror while protecting the rights of innocent citizens. De Menezes' shooting, said Blair, "was the culmination of actions by many hands, all of whom were doing their best to handle the terrible threat facing London on that day: a race against time to find the failed suicide bombers of the day before." Blair expressed his "deep regrets," but reiterated his determination to stay on as police chief in the face of calls for his resignation from Britain's two largest opposition parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith expressed her "full confidence" in Blair, who insists that the police acted properly in what he called "an extraordinary situation."

London was on high alert on the morning that police surveillance teams stationed outside an apartment block in South London spotted de Menezes leaving his building on his way to work. Terror attacks on July 7 had killed 52 commuters, and just the previous day, more suspects had gone on the run after devices they planted on London's public transport network failed to explode. The police were looking for Hussain Osman, whose address was in the same building as de Menezes, and had attempted to bomb the Shepherd's Bush London tube station the previous day. (Osman was found guilty of conspiracy to murder earlier this year.) Police, mistaking de Menezes for Osman, trailed him into Stockwell tube station and down the escalator onto a platform. When he boarded a train, they cornered him and shot him with special bullets designed to cause maximum physical damage.

Amid those basic facts, a host of questions have arisen about police procedures under pressure and their response to finding themselves under investigation. The court heard about miscommunication between officers on the day of the shooting. The prosecution also wondered how light-skinned de Menezes could have been mistaken for the darker, Ethiopian-born Osman. A forensics expert told the court that a composite picture provided by the police after the shooting to show the similarities between de Menezes and Osman had been digitally altered to diminish their differences.

Commissioner Blair has promised that "the lessons learnt from the death of Mr. de Menezes [will be] incorporated into [police] training, policy and operations." The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, expressed concern that the trial might hinder the fight against terror. "Police officers must not fear that they will be second-guessed by those operating with all the benefit of hindsight," he said. The court's verdict leaves the Metropolitan Police facing a penalty and legal costs that together amount to about $1.1 million. A statement by de Menezes' Brazil-based mother, Maria, read by relatives outside the court, welcomed the verdict as the "first public recognition of the failings of the Metropolitan Police." But the family says it is still seeking justice.