The successful prosecution of the Metropolitan Police for negligence in the July 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes has dramatically highlighted the unaccountability of the police and the lack of democracy in the justice system.
Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead on a London Underground train on 22 July 2005, the day after a foiled series of terrorist attacks on London and two weeks after the 7/7 bombings. Trailed by police on his trip from his home in Tulse Hill, which included two bus journeys, de Menezes was followed down the escalator at Stockwell station and shot with minimal warning by firearms officers. The Met’s defence was that de Menezes had been mistaken for terrorist suspect Hussain Osman, who lived nearby.
Immediately after the killing of de Menezes, the Met were apologetic about having overseen a “tragic accident”. They then embarked on a character assassination of their victim — for instance falsely claiming that de Menezes
had vaulted the ticket barriers at the Tube station and run away from police operatives. In court, the police’s defence lawyer, Ronald Thwaites QC, embraced a panoply of side arguments. He told jurors at the Old Bailey that de Menezes’ urine contained traces of cocaine; that he “moved in an aggressive and threatening manner”, and “behaved suspiciously” in the seconds before his death; and the QC asked rhetorically “did he fear he might have some drugs in his jacket and want to get them out and throw them away when he was challenged by the police?”.
The defence used a photo-comparison of de Menezes and Hussain Osman to the jury. This was characterised by the prosecution as a cynical fabrication, the light levels and perspective having been altered to make the two men look more alike.
In the end the £3.5 million investigation and trial uncovered serious inadequacies in police planning and co-ordination.
Unfortunately the guilty verdict does not mean that police powers will be curbed — the fine of £175,000 will be paid out of public funds. Leading police officials and the government, who backed up the pathetic lies and squirming
away from responsibility by the Met, have washed their hands of the affair. Metropolitan Police commissioner Ian Blair will not even resign.
But the de Menezes affair is not an isolated tragedy. The failings of the police hierarchy do not lie with the aberrant individuals who lead it, but with the distribution of power and the control of violence within society. It is not just
Menezes. Speeding police cars kill 40 people a year with little comeback.
The police exist to back up the rule of the capitalist class. Anti-working class, racist and anti-youth prejudice runs throughout their hierarchy. They hold a monopoly on the legal use of violence. Crucially, for their own
preservation, they are largely autonomous from democratic control. And that is why they can routinely operate “above the law”.
Ian Blair’s resignation might help counter the ideological weight of the police, people’s belief in their neutrality. But that is all. In the here and now we need to campaign for a thorough- going democratisation of the justice system — for elected bodies to oversee the operations of the police, with the power to
“open the books”, to get behind police secrecy and to challenge the arbitrary use of violence.
In the early 1980s some Labour councils attempted to use Police Authorities (only partly and indirectly elected) to hold the police in check. For instance the South Yorkshire Police Authority denied the Chief Constable the right to use council money to attack pickets during the 1984-85 miners’ strike. However they were stopped in their tracks when the High Court intervened on the Chief
Constable’s side. Ultimately the Police Authorities proved to be talking shops with no “teeth”.
Justice Henriques told jurors at the Old Bailey that “the police are not above the law”. But unless there are directly elected bodies that are genuinely able to hold the police to account, leading police officers, in cahoots with the government, will be under little pressure to obey even the most basic norms of
justice and honesty.