The European Court of Human Rights has backed the decision not to prosecute any Metropolitan Police officers for shooting Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes dead at Stockwell tube station on 22 July 2005. Being a swarthy South American, this 27-year-old electrician was mistaken for a Muslim suicide bomber.
Given the febrile atmosphere enveloping London in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, the death of de Menezes may be interpreted as an unfortunate, yet understandable, error. What remains disturbing, however, is the culture of cover-up at Scotland Yard revealed by this case.
Any death at the hands of the police results in a referral to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Following the death of de Menezes, three days elapsed before an inquiry was handed over to the IPCC – well outside the usual 48 hours which are seen as crucial for evidence gathering.
Senior officers at the Met also failed to inform Commissioner Sir Ian Blair until the day after de Menezes’s killing that an innocent man had been shot. A later IPCC investigation apportioned particular blame to Blair’s staff officer, Moir Stewart. Four years later, Commander Moir Stewart was appointed Director of Investigations at the IPCC.
Such apparently minor delays allowed the police time to construct an official narrative: that de Menezes had been wearing a bulky jacket (which could have concealed a bomb) and that he vaulted a barrier at Stockwell tube station. A perfect police public relations exercise: de Menzes was acting like terrorist.
Evidence submitted to the IPCC challenged the Met’s story. Linda Vandenberghe, an IPCC secretary, described watching video footage of de Menezes entering Stockwell tube station:
There was a dead silence, absolute silence. I think the impact of everyone learning the actual truth was … well, you could cut the air with a knife. We actually stopped and had a moment of silence for Jean Charles. We had a moment of prayer for him.
Disgusted by the lies emanating from Scotland Yard, and spun by most of the media, Vandenberghe leaked documents disputing the police point of view to an ITN journalist. Both were subsequently arrested in early-morning raids by Leicestershire Police at the behest of the Met and the IPCC. Both were released without charge. The IPCC fired Vandenberghe.
Vandenberghe received no payment for her story. She justified her leak, citing her belief that “‘politics’ would have prevented the truth coming out.”
Reporting in 2006, the IPCC concluded that the death of de Menzes was avoidable, but the Crown Prosecution Service declined to press charges. The Metropolitan Police Authority, the body supposed to hold the Met to account, was fined £175,000 for breaching health and safety legislation.
Acclaimed investigative journalists Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn offer a coruscating and damning judgement:
The £300,000 report into the Stockwell tragedy magically protected the Yard, concluding but not explaining why senior officers apparently kept Blair in the dark for 24 hours that his officers had killed an innocent man. Shortly thereafter, the group of defence lawyers on the IPCC’s advisory board resigned. They were in post to ensure independence and to provide a proper voice for complaints. Now they were packing their bags, citing concerns that the watchdog was not properly accountable or even an effective oversight body.
As is often the case with British institutions, the cover-up was worse than the crime.