Return to SO19 (thing)
Tedious gun control debates are an inevitable fact of life on the internet, if you're into your politics. And coming from the UK, one of the things that inevitably comes up is that our police aren't armed. As a rule, we give them a stick, a can of pepper spray, a pair of handcuffs and some institutional racism and let them get on with it. Generally, I rather like this, if only because it makes potentially lethal violence look like a throwback to the Battle of Cannae. It's also nice to know that the nice policeman on the street doesn't have the immediate power to kill you. Makes them a bit more approachable.
But this is the 21st century, and given that Britain is not stuck in the 1950s - much as some in the Conservative Party might wish otherwise - it's become apparent that sometimes British criminals will be so indecent as to use guns. This being seen as slightly unfair, the response to this has been to form specialised police firearms units. Creeping militarisation of policing being what it is, and with the looming threat of international terror a useful addition to budget proposals, the government have seen fit over the past few decades to give these units all the fancy toys they could possibly desire, with the end result being something roughly equal to an American SWAT team.
SO19, apart from being a postcode in Southampton, is the Metropolitan Police's specialist firearms unit, giving them responsibility for any gun-related badness happening in Greater London. They keep changing the name; first to CO19, and latterly to the Specialist Firearms Command, but I don't think anyone outside the police knows them as anything else. Note that they aren't the only armed Met officers; the ones you see milling around airports with submachine guns are part of a different unit, you can sometimes see the Diplomatic Protection Group holding up traffic in their fancy red cars, and some detectives specialising in armed robbery investigation or counter-terrorism get issued weapons as well. Essentially, some officers can qualify as Authorised Firearms Officers, having (hopefully) been trained not to shoot the wrong people, but there's also a category of Specialist Firearms Officers. Those are AFOs who get extra training, so as to be police marksmen, or negotiators, or whatever you call the people who abseil out of helicopters and shoot their way through plate-glass windows. A variety of police units have AFOs, but only SO19 and its equivalents have both AFOs and SFOs.
Bureaucracy aside, what SO19 actually does is to respond to incidents suspected to involve a firearm, and usually to do so in as mob-handed a manner as possible; something which serves the dual purposes of increasing safety and making clear that gun crime is something British police are in a big way Not Cool With. To do this, they patrol around London in Armed Response Vehicles, essentially larger, heavier police cars with a safe full of guns. See what I mean about them getting all the cool toys? If you need to tell an ARV apart from a normal police car, for instance if you're a Brazilian electrician worried about your commute, look for a fluorescent yellow dot on the window, or failing that, a BMW that seems to be driving with the chassis half an inch away from the road.
The thing is that armed police are mostly visible by contrast. The reality is that gun crime is not at all common in Britain, even in London. As flawed as police use of firearms might be in this country, I'm rather glad we don't arm every officer (although we do in Northern Ireland, because of the late unpleasantness). To quote Marcus Brigstocke, one of the things I love about this country is that when we give a policeman a gun, he has the decency to look nervous. And I'd still rather have armed police responding to these sorts of incidents than the army. Theoretically, the government can still let the SAS off the leash to resolve an armed incident, as they did in the Iranian embassy siege. That they haven't needed to is a success for police firearms units, and that gun crime is as low as it is is a success for not arming the balance of police officers. It's an idiosyncratic system, but on the whole, I think it works rather well. And I'm not just saying that because I'm about to savage SO19's reputation in the next paragraph, and they are angry men with guns.
Thing is, amongst Londoners, SO19 does have a reputation, and it's not as stalwart defenders of freedom. This is partly because they're only ever in the news when they accidentally put 3000 rounds of JHP into an orphanage for sad kittens, but things like that can happen. I still think the chances of police shooting the wrong person are extremely low, and would be far higher if we armed all police, but hopefully you'll agree that one is too many. With that in mind, I present a childrens' treasury of mistaken police shootings in London, and the judicial consequences:
Stephen Waldorf. A film editor shot and wounded by police in 1983 after being mistaken for an escaped convict. Armed police were following his car in traffic on the basis of this mistaken identity. He allegedly reached for something in his car as one of the officers walked past on the street. Officers then fired 13 rounds at the car. To finish off a class act, the first officer leaned into the car, aimed his pistol at Waldorf, said "Okay, cocksucker," and attempted to shoot him. Finding himself out of ammunition, he contented himself with pistol-whipping Waldorf (who had by this point been shot five times) into unconsciousness. Waldorf survived, and was given £150,000 in compensation. Two of the officers involved stood trial for attempted murder and wounding, but were cleared of all charges.
Cherry Groce. A mother of six, shot and paralysed by police raiding her house to search for her wanted son. Her shooting sparked a riot in Brixton. The officer who had shot her was prosecuted, but ultimately acquitted.
Harry Stanley. A Scottish painter (as in hallways and living rooms, not landscapes), shot by the crew of a Met ARV in 1999. He was walking down the street carrying a new leg for a broken table, in a bag. Someone mistook his accent and called the police, saying there was 'an Irishman with a gun'. As recently as 1999, that still set a whole different set of alarm bells ringing, of course. The police approached him from behind, shouted 'Stop, armed police!', and as he turned to face them, they fatally shot him. The first inquest recorded an open verdict, having been forbidden to deliver a verdict of unlawful killing. That was later deemed insufficent, so it went to court, where the latter verdict was given. The two officers who shot Stanley were suspended, and then reinstated when about a hundred of their colleagues threatened to quit.
Jean Charles de Menezes. A Brazilian electrician shot and killed by police (or possibly by the army, if you're into conspiracy theories) on the tube in 2005 in the weeks after the 7th July bombings. He was mistaken for a suicide bomber, restrained in the tube carriage, and shot 7 times in the head. Needless to say, that sounds more like an execution than a mistake, hence the conspiracy theories. This has to do with Operation Kratos, the Met's response to suicide bombings in London, which calls for shots to the head to avoid detonating any explosives on the person, or allowing them to detonate them. The case is chiefly notable, however, for the sheer amount of lying the Met did to cover themselves. A considerable amount of that misinformation (or miscommunication, if you're feeling really charitable) is still on his E2 writeup. He was variously claimed to have been wearing a bulky jacket in summer, carrying a tool bag, jumping the ticket barrier, running from police, or approaching them as they entered the tube carriage. None of these were true. The Met Police settled out of court with the family and offered a public apology.
Abdul Kahar. Shot and wounded in 2006 by police who raided his house in East London on the misapprehension that he was involved in a terrorist plot. Accidentally shot in the shoulder by the officer commanding the operation. Police found no explosives, or any evidence of involvement of terrorism, in the house. Kahar was cleared of all charges, but later arrested on child pornography charges on the basis of evidence found in the raid. Those charges were then lifted on advice from the CPS, who did not believe that Kahar had the technical knowledge to have put the images on the phone they had been found on. Again, conspiracy theorists might view this as being somewhat suspicious.
That's leaving out things like SAS trainers calling their SO19 counterparts, in effect, dangerously unprofessional, or one of Tony Blair's police bodyguards leaving her sidearm in a Starbucks toilet. Again, it's important to note that these are by no means representative, but should give one pause for thought. Still, could be worse, eh? If nothing else, we've at least redirected our reflexive shooting from the Irish to brown people. Progress marches on.