Wednesday, 21 July 2010
The choice of life or death
I then read the news stories about the use of the Taser by the police on the surrounded killer and how it hadn't yet been approved by the Home Office Scientific Development Branch (although there was no mention of their backlog of things awaiting their analysis and approval - that would be an interesting study all of its own). Coupled with this were the questions about whether or not the Tasers deployed, caused him to shoot himself or not.
I searched for any comments from the official side about the use of lethal vs sub-lethal force and offering points for the news-starved public to ponder. Couldn't find any. It seems that either the official side (police, Home Office, ACPO) couldn't find anyone to state a case of options or they were hiding behind the sub judice rules and their own secret policy on the police use of firearms. Either way, the same old problem remained, a stony silence in the face of not unreasonable questions that leads the great unwashed to draw its own inexorable conclusions of `cover-up`, `conspiracies of silence` and acquiescence of the authorities by that very silence.
Nothing did I find that attempted to explain a little of the possible processes that were being played out in the final hours, from the perspective of those police officers whose duty it was to bring the situation to as peaceful a conclusion as practicable, based on the over riding principle that they were there to do three things, in this order;
1. Protect the public;
2. Protect themselves;
3. Without compromising 1&2, protect the suspect.
From my perspective, points 1&2 were always perfectly clear, although I occasionally found myself in situations where they actually changed places, almost imperceptibly but on one occasion, quite positively. Either way for me, points 1&2 were always, at best, neck and neck. So I'll cut out any philosophical and hypothetical arguments and try to stick with the simple, aforementioned 3 point principle.
The killer with the shotgun and the psych problem was finally contained by officers from the tactical firearms unit and their support services. These people were the inner cordon, through which no one would pass, in either direction, without their say so. He was under constant observation by armed officers by way of direct eye contact, through rifle scopes and supporting spotters with night vision capability, by cctv with night vision. They were close enough to hit him with either lethal or sub-lethal munitions. Point 1 covered.
They had body armour, ballistic shields and helmets, close support from the Dog Section, technical services, negotiators and snipers, latterly referred to by the arguably less emotive term `riflemen`, although the `men` seems now to have been removed so as not to clash with the diktats of the diversity unit - these people are not to be messed with either. Personally, I find `sniper` to be a fitting, non-gender specific term that may well have a comeback. The only problem, that in my experience the people at the very tip of the sharp end have great difficulty in working around, is the long screwdriver - interference from the highs of the hierarchy, who want to tinker with tactics from afar. Tactics are real-time entities and demand swift, sound judgement. Strategy is something set from the outset, broad based until it moves closer to the end-game, where it must defer to the judgment, interpretation, leadership and courage of those charged with its doing. To be fair, strategists need courage too, but it's the courage of their own conviction that what they created and signed off, was the best they could come up with. Strategy can be changed, but not at the sharp end when you are staring down the barrel at life and death, either of which could be your own. So, with some qualification, Point 2 covered.
The suspect sits within the inner cordon, gun to his head. Negotiators negotiate, spotters observe and report, firearms teams stand-to, ready to stop an escape and an atrocious crime (another death). They can do many things but they cannot know what the suspect will do, after all they are not mind readers and, obvious though this may sound, the suspect never attends the police briefing so never follows the script. If he points his weapon at them they have a decision to make, is my or my colleagues life in immediate danger? If they know for sure that everyone is behind bullet resistant cover and that their colleagues behind them in the outer cordon have done their jobs, then they can weigh up the decision of whether to shoot, or not, more easily. They may even have the time to decide whether to try using a sub-lethal munition. Of course these are never 100% certainties and so lethal force must still be there, shoulder to shoulder with them. But they do not act alone. They must communicate. There must be co-ordination. Wherever possible, the tactical commander must minimise the number of officers surrounding the suspect to avoid confusion because the decision to fire a weapon in such circumstances is up to individual officers. Why? Because of individual perception. Six people can witness the same incident but will not always perceive the same threat. This is close quarter stuff, not an artillery bombardment to neutralise half an acre.
Time drags on and the suspect's behaviour and mental state is still up and down like a yo-yo. He shouts, screams, waves his gun about, goes silent for long periods, he is highly unpredictable. Here is a man who could well want to provoke a shooting by police so as to cement his own self-image as a legend in his own lunchtime. All the psychologists have already said this, through the media, and I have no doubt that the police have considered this a very real possibility also. Suddenly, he goes into a state that gives officers the concern that he is about to end his life, imminently. So many options, so little time. If they do nothing, he could calm down again. If they do nothing he could blow his own head off. If they do nothing he could fire in their direction (but if they remain behind their ballistic shields they stand a very good chance of remaining uninjured). If he kills himself in front of the worlds TV cameras, how does this sit with Point 3? They have a duty to safeguard the suspect, after Points 1&2 have been covered. They have Tasers that incapacitate, but there is also a chance he might release the trigger during the muscle spasms that Taser causes. Whatever they do or don't do, this suspect has already put his life at great risk by placing a loaded shotgun to his head. Triggers are very light. He has already been very lucky not to have shot himself accidentally.
He could put the gun down and give up; he could get up and walk towards the police lines carrying his gun, whereby he would be Taser'd and/or shot by lethal force, because he was coming close to encroacing on Point 2 of the officers' duty; or he could simply behave in such a manner that gave officers real fears that he was imminently about to take his own life and so their only chance of trying to stop him was to use Taser and hope that it would cause him to drop the weapon. Point 3 covered.
So where was the ACPO spokesperson to step up to the plate, stand by their own policy document and, without giving away tactical doctrine, just answer a few simple questions?