Arguably a crowd comprising 59 men (and, perhaps, the odd – very odd – woman), between them carrying 109 guns, is about as mad as it gets, especially when they’re all milling about the elegant terraced houses of Chelsea. I’m not too interested in dissecting the minutiae of the five-hour “siege” that ended up with the 32-year-old barrister Mark Saunders receiving five fatal shots from four police marksmen – but what must be countered is the ludicrous ruling of the jury at the coroner’s inquest, held on 7 October this year. Ludicrous, because there is no way that 59 armed officers could be construed as acting in “reasonable self-defence” under such circumstances. Saunders was an alcoholic. The shotgun he was waving around has an effective lethal range of 50 yards at most, and he was up in his flat – the marksmen were down on the ground. Besides being able to take cover, they were all wearing body armour.
As in other, similar cases, the coroner had already debarred members of the jury from delivering a verdict of “unlawful killing”, so we cannot blame them for not checking the madness of this particular crowd. But they did criticise the way senior officers had handled the “siege” and, with due contrition, the Metropolitan Police subsequently conceded that there were “lessons” to be learned. But it seems the one lesson which cannot be learned is that it’s unacceptable in a democratic and open society to have any group of people, let alone armed police officers, who are in effect above the law.
Saunders was gunned down in 2008 and this year we had the revolting snuff newscast of Raoul Moat but, overall, the British police are fairly parsimonious when it comes to wasting citizenry: there have been 29 fatal shootings by police since 2000, of which 13 were by the Met. Nevertheless, no officer has ever been prosecuted for unlawful killing and I have had it from sources close to the apex at the Met that no officer can ever be. On one occasion – when there was a flagrant failure to give due warning before a man wielding a chair leg was gunned down – spokespersons for the firearms officers made it abundantly clear that they would down tools if any of their colleagues was charged. What a peculiar Mexican stand-off! The very police officers charged with the greatest responsibility on our streets, acting like a juvenile gang – it doesn’t exactly instil confidence.
Ah, say the lovers of Laura Norder, but what would you have done? Well, I don’t know exactly what operational errors the senior officers at the Met are conceding, but the very presence of the armed mob would seem to be one, as was how Saunders was killed while a “trained negotiator” was talking to him. Such is the modern way that this horror show was broadcast for all to witness: the poor, disturbed man waving his shotgun about while we hear a woman saying: “You need to pick up the phone, Mark. You need to pick up the phone.” Seconds later, the fatal shots were fired.
Trained negotiator she may have been, but she sounded as sympathetic as a raddled barmaid calling last orders. Is this snobbery?
I rather suspect it is: vocal snobbery. If I’m ever in a dangerous stand-off, I want someone plummy and faintly amusing to talk me down – think Joanna Lumley, Simon Callow, or the chap who used to do the voice-overs for Mr Kipling. Perhaps if any of these exceedingly calming voices had been deployed, Saunders might still be alive.
In the wake of the Jean Charles de Menezes killing, the Met went through the hoops backwards in an effort to exonerate not only the actual shooters, but also the entire chain of command involved in this colossal and tragic cock-up. After writing certain trenchant remarks in the press, having been given an off-the-record briefing by the late, lamented Liberal mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, I was summoned to Scotland Yard for a chat with the then headmaster, Ian Blair.
There was tea and biscuits and he came on soft, for all the world like a sociology lecturer at a former polytechnic. I got the message: it’s fantastically bloody hard, policing this city, and we’d be grateful if you weren’t so mean to us.
Wassums. Still, should the current commissioner wish to have a chat with me about Saunders’s killing, my door is open. Just don’t rush round.