Friday, May 09, 2008

You say reasonable, I say tomato

Here's another example of the disconnect between British and American attitudes regarding what actions are reasonable to take in defense of oneself or others. This editorial in the Independent blog complains of the creeping "Americanization" of Britain in the wake of the police shooting of an urban gunman:
The Chelsea and Stockwell police shootings: some questions

By James Macintyre

Questions are being raised in the Saturday papers over the Chelsea shooting by police of Mark Saunders earlier this week, and rightly so. One that doesn't seem to have been answered (or asked), is why did officers apparently spray him with bullets before throwing tear gas and stun grenades into his house, rather than the other way around? The Met, as ever, is behind the scenes heavily briefing its side of the story to the press. But the scrutiny it faces is notably enhanced since the last high-profile police shooting, that of the innocent Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes when he was mistaken for a suicide bomber in 2005.

The repeated, point-blank-range de Menezes shooting is now being reported as the last by police before that of Mr Saunders. As it happens, one of the officers involved in the Stockwell station tragedy was reported to have shot and killed again. Either way, the Americanization of our streets, and the increasingly trigger-happy nature of our police, are justifiable matters for concern.

But other worrying questions emerge from the two cases, too: after that of Mr de Menezes, it was reported as the aprehending of a suicide bomber and - after rampant spin by police - the now disproved myth, that the Brazilian jumped tube barriers, was running and wearing a bulky coat, prevailed not for days but for years.

Later, Mr de Menezes was smeared over cocaine use - as if that somehow justified his death - in a fashion not completely different from the narrative about Mr Saunders's undoubted drinking problem. That the police is capable of spin is not in doubt, and it is worth remembering that certain leading Met bosses - apart from Sir Iain Blair who was kept in the dark - unquestionably lied to the media in an attempt to cover their terrible mistake. Should an off-the-record relationship between police and press be allowed? Perhaps.

But there is another, crucial question here. By the way things are looking, the police will not get away with the kind of lies and spin they whipped up over Mr de Menezes. This is a good thing, despite the converse fact that the latter was entirely innocent, while Mr Saunders was, apparently, at the very least firing at neighbours's houses in his residential square.

Certainly it takes a lot for the centre-right press to dare, as it has this week, to ask any questions of police officers, not one of whom - it should be remembered - has ever, despite everything, been held to account for the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Could it be that in modern Britain the police killing of a white, middle class barrister in Sloane Square receives more scrutiny - and more justice - than a dark-skinned foreign electrician in south London?

Macintyre's account gives few details of the situation that the police encountered outside Saunder's home that led up to their decision to storm the house. This article in the Guardian provides those details:
Mark Saunders was shot dead by police when they feared that he would kill or seriously injure an officer or member of the public if he was not stopped, the Guardian has learned.

Details of the reasoning by police when faced by the barrister who began firing indiscriminately after drinking came on the day an inquest heard he had been shot at least five times, and by more than one officer.

Sources familiar with police decision-making say people had been still trapped in their homes in Markham Square, west London, when the 32-year-old opened fire on Tuesday afternoon. Officers considered trying to evacuate all the residents in the vicinity, but decided there was a risk that Saunders would open fire on anyone he could see from his window overlooking the square. They believed he would shoot any officer trying to get people out, and any of his neighbours.

Saunders came across as drunk, the sources said, and he displayed a highly volatile mood while talking to police who were trying to convince him to lay down his shotgun and surrender.

Experts say that three of the five shots - to Saunders's head, heart and liver - would have incapacitated him, and would have almost certainly proved lethal. These shots were fired as he and police were engaged in an exchange of fire for the third time, with Saunders holed up in his flat where he had fired from his second floor window three times over a 4½-hour period.

The sources say the plan had been to wait Saunders out, after he first opened fire in the direction of his neighbours, and then again at armed police called to the scene just before 5pm.

But that plan was scrapped when the former Territorial Army soldier fired at police from his window after 9pm.

A senior source told the Guardian: "It was the strong belief that he would shoot someone, either a police officer or resident who was trapped and emerged from their house or flat."

On Thursday his father, Rodney Saunders, questioned whether police had been obliged to use lethal force.

A senior police source said that storming the flat and trying to take him alive would have been highly dangerous to the officers involved. After he took the fatal shots the flat was stormed by armed officers using stun grenades.

Nine officers believe they opened fire during the siege; in keeping with police procedure the nine have been removed temporarily from firearms duties.

Yesterday an inquest into Saunders's death opened at City of Westminster coroner's court. Coroner's officer Lynda Morris told the hearing that Saunders did not use his shotgun on himself: "The multiple gunshot wounds present are associated with severe internal damage to the brain, the heart, the liver and the main vein of the lower body. The external and internal gunshot-related damage is consistent with a minimum of five shots having hit the deceased." She was reading a preliminary report by pathologist Nathaniel Cary.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating the incident. Investigators said they were looking at various lines of inquiry, and refused to rule out the possibility he was trying to commit so-called "suicide by cop".


Somehow I think, given the circumstances of a drunk gunman firing at neighbors and police over more than a four hour period, that Macintyre's knee-jerk suspicions of foul play and the unreasonable use of deadly force are in themselves unreasonable. It is fine and proper to take the civil rights of a criminal into consideration, and to look for ways to resolve a situation without bloodshed, but never at the cost of putting the lives of the police and the public at undue risk. It is not like the British police have demonstrated a persistent pattern of deadly confrontations, yet their motives will be second and third guessed by people like Mcintyre, and they could quite possibly face charges.

These are the attitudes that prompted my comment in Human Psychology 101 about a "legal philosophy which makes the law-abiding citizen responsible for the safety and well-being of the law-breaker." Based on the facts as presented in the article, I can't say that the police acted improperly or with undue force or recklessness. I think they did their job properly.

If I were a homeowner in England who had to take drastic action to protect myself from an intruder, I would not feel in the least bit comforted if my jury were composed of people like Mcintyre. Not my definition of reasonable.

14 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Reporting in from Houston, Texas, where for the past two days the front page of The Chronicle has been devoted entirely to gunshot deaths:

-- of a 14-year-old boy who seems to have been slow to follow an (inexplicable) order to leave his apartment by cops who were investigating a fight outside

-- of a cop by an illegal immigrant who was being written up for a traffic violation and who, allegedly, killed him to avoid a 10-year term as a 2-time wetback loser

-- of a man sitting in a chair outside his home, shot by plinkers a quarter of a mile away, plinking (inexplicably) with a weapon not precisely identified but apparently some version of an AR-15

As for the English case, I suppose that anyone who opens fire in a city has no complaints if someone shoots back, no matter what.

May 10, 2008 12:26 PM  
Blogger Ali said...

There have been a number of cases where the police have been accused of being trigger-happy. The de Menezes case was one, the Kahar case another and also one where an unfortunate person was shot and killed after it was assumed he was carrying a weapon. It later turned out to be piano stool leg.

May 10, 2008 1:31 PM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Are you saying it is wrong to ask questions of the police when they kill someone?

May 11, 2008 4:07 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Mark, I'm just struck that Macintyre would compare the Saunders case to the de Menezes shooting. The only similarity is that the police shot someone, who then died. There are far more differences, yet Macintyre thinks that the police will get their comeuppance in the Saunders case that they avoided in the de Menezes case.

His editorial would be a good venue for considering what should be valid criteria for using deadly force by police. If justice is Macintyre's goal, that means justice for both the police and the suspects who they shoot. It's not just a matter of asking questions, you have to ask the right questions.

If you Brits want both justice and security, then you will have to manage the tradeoff between giving the police the authority they need to confront dangerous, violent criminals and the restraints to ensure they don't abuse that authority. You can't wish these problems away.

You've made a decision to put the majority of your security eggs in the police basket, reserving very little of that authority for the average citizen. You've tried to ban guns hoping that it would lead to less violent crime, but guns are increasingly making their way into the hands of people, both criminal and not (You might want to start your questions by asking how or why Saunders had a gun). Now the police have to prepare themselves to confront situations where guns are present. Are you willing to give them the authority they need to do their job, or are you going to put them in the no win situation of second guessing them when they fail to stop a criminal from committing violence and when they use too much force to stop that violence?

May 11, 2008 7:05 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Day three in Houston, where down the street is a huge billboard that reads simply GUN SHOW.

Page one of The Chronicle is again dominated by gunplay: a father shot his wife and 3 children, then himself.

So far, no stories about armed citizens fighting off rampaging, but (one assumes) more lightly armed felons

May 11, 2008 7:16 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Another thought that just occurred to me regarding Macintyre's "Americanization" slander. Police tyranny and police abuse are symptoms of a situation where the state assumes all or the great majority of the authority for maintaining order and security, which is exactly what you chose to have in Britain. (Actually you didn't choose it, but you acquiesced to it.) American gun ownership is based on the premise that the individual reserves the rights and authority for self defense. One reason Americans arm themselves is because they are fearful, even paranoid, about governmental abuse and tyranny.

So it's not Americanization that you are experiencing with these police shootings, but the consequences of Britainization.

May 11, 2008 7:21 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Harry,
Why don't you comb the Chronicle for burglary stories, whether the homeowner was armed or not? How many burglaries are occuring when the homeowners are home? Could it be that the reason you don't see these stories is because the burglars in Houston aren't stupid enough to try it when people are home?

The stories are out there, you're just ignoring them. We had a story two weeks ago in the Twin Cities of a man who surprised a burglar, fired his handgun and wounded him, then detained him until the police arrived. I couldn't find the story in any of the internet news sites, otherwise I'd provide you a link. But there are plenty of stories out there. Just Google "homeowner stops burglar".

May 11, 2008 7:38 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

No shortage of burglars in Houston.

Every house on this street has burglar bars. The house I am staying in (my mother-in-law's) was burglarized a few years ago and all my father-in-law's guns were stolen.

May 11, 2008 8:25 AM  
Blogger Mark Frank said...

Duck

So do you have enquiries when the police kill someone?

May 11, 2008 8:58 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Mark,
Of course we do. That's not the point. The point is what criteria of reasonableness should apply when conducting those inquiries.

May 11, 2008 9:17 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Harry,
Were they home when the house was burglarized?

May 11, 2008 9:17 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

No, but the burglars couldn't have known that.

May 11, 2008 1:00 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Sure they could. All they have to do is knock on the door.

May 11, 2008 1:09 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Never heard of a burglar doing that.

Today's Houston gunplay was a drive-by in which a father was killed and his son was wounded.

Let's see. Of the 5 murders, 1 suicide and 1 negligent homicide in Houston this weekend, not one could have been deterred by a more heavily armed citizenry.

Concealed carry and shall issue laws would have had no effect.

Later this week, I will be in Gainesville, a smaller place where The Gainesville Sun reports carjackings, armed robberies etc., even if no one gets killed. The Chronicle reports only crimes that result in deaths.

The Sun also covers a large rural area, and there we will find that -- contrary to Skipper's national statistics -- the rural South is just as violent as the urban South.

May 12, 2008 8:54 AM  

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