In the United Kingdom, an Osman Warning is an official warning issued to an individual by the police advising them that they are at serious risk of being killed by someone who appears to have the capability to make good their threat.
The practice of issuing Osman Warnings has its origins in the unfortunate case of Paul Paget-Lewis, a teacher of whom it was later said was suffering from psychotic tendencies. Paul Paget-Lewis taught at the Homerton House School in London, and in 1986 he developed what he considered to be a "special relationship" with one of his pupils named Ahmet Osman. It was as a result of this infatuation he changed his name by deed poll to Paul Ahmet Yildirim Osman sometime in April or May 1987, and also accused another pupil named Leslie Green of "deviant practices" with the object of his affection.
Unfortunately his obsession also manifested itself in a more direct fashion, as on the 21st May 1987 a brick was thrown through a window at the Osman household, followed by two incidents when Ahmet's father Ali Osman found that the tyres of his car had been slashed. These incidents were reported to both the police and the education authorities and eventually on the 18th June 1987, Paget-Lewis was suspended pending an investigation by the Inner London Education Authority for "unprofessional behaviour" towards Ahmet Osman.
However over the following months there were repeated instances of vandalism and criminal damage directed against the Osman family. Their front door lock was superglued, dog excrement was smeared on both the doorstep and on the car, the car windscreen was smashed, and the bulb from the light in the outside porch was repeatedly stolen. Then on the 7th December 1987 Paget-Lewis deliberately drove the wrong way down a one-way street and rammed a van in which Leslie Green was travelling. The driver of the van was subsequently interviewed by police and claimed that Paget-Lewis had told him, "I am not worried about all this because in a few months I will be doing life", whilst during an interview with an officer from the local education authority on the 15th December, Paget-Lewis told the official that it was his intention to do a "sort of Hungerford".
But although Paget-Lewis was charged in relation to the van-ramming incident, he was nevertheless free to spend the next few months travelling around the country in a variety of hired cars, during which time he attended a clay-pigeon shoot in Yorkshire on the 17th January 1988 and broke into one of the cars and stole a shotgun. Having thus obtained a firearm Paget-Lewis turned up at the Osman home on the 7th March 1988. Having forced his way in, he shot and killed Ali Osman and seriously wounded his son Ahmet. He then drove to the home of Kenneth Perkins, a deputy head teacher at his former school, where he shot and wounded him and killed his son.
Early on the following morning Paget-Lewis was arrested, and on the 28th October 1988 Paget-Lewis was convicted of two charges of manslaughter having pleaded guilty on grounds of diminished responsibility. He was duly sentenced to be detained at a secure mental hospital for an indeterminate period in accordance with the Mental Health Act 1983.
It was clear that Paget-Lewis's obsession with Ahmet Osman had repeatedly been brought to the attention of the police, who had persistently failed to take any action on the matter. Indeed when he was arrested Paget-Lewis himself had remarked, "Why didn't you stop me before I did it, I gave you all the warning signs?" This was the exact same question posed by Ali Osman's widow, Mulkiye Osman who decided to sue the Metropolitan Police for negligence over their failure to prevent the attack, being particularly annoyed that, despite the repeated complaints the family had made regarding the harassment they'd suffered, the police had never interviewed Paget-Lewis or searched his home, whilst they had never charged him with anything more serious than his failure to possess a valid MOT certificate and driving without due care and intention.
The Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police subsequently applied to have the case thrown out, on the grounds that the police enjoyed immunity from actions for negligence. On the 7th October 1992 the Court of Appeal upheld this appeal by the Commissioner (Osman and another v. Ferguson and another, 1993). The Court of Appeal also refused the Osmans leave to appeal to the House of Lords and when they subsequently applied to the House of Lords directly for leave to appeal, that too was refused in May 1993. However Mrs Osman refused to give in and subsequently decided in November 1993 to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The European Commission of Human Rights declared that the application was admissible on the 17th May 1996, and the case of Osman v United Kingdom was later decided on the 28th October 1998. The Court awarded Mrs Osman and her son compensation of £10,000 each as it was held that the British courts had breached Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As it turned out the court did not conclude that the Metropolitan Police had been negligent, it simply ruled that Mrs Osman and her son deserved to have their complaint considered by a court of law, in that Article 6.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights provided that "everyone is entitled to a hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law".
However despite the fact that there was nothing in this judgment that even implied that the police owed a 'duty of care' towards those individuals whom it knew might be at risk of harm, British police forces have since acted as if they did owe such a duty of care. Most police forces now take the view that they have a "positive obligation" to "take preventative operational measures to protect an individual whose life is at risk from criminal acts of another individual", since otherwise they might find themselves obliged to justify their actions in a court of law.
Of course one of the ironies of this legal development is that those individuals most likely to find their lives threatened, are themselves professional criminals. So in the circumstances where the police receive intelligence that, for example, one street gang is planning to use violence against a rival gang in pursuance of a drugs turf war, they now feel obliged to inform the target of the threat and provide police protection if requested. But as a Detective Superintendent Roger Critchell, from the Metropolitan Police Intelligence Bureau once explained, "It does not matter what the potential victim does or is involved in, we have a duty of care to make sure they are safe".
Years later The Times made an application under the Freedom of Information Act to establish exactly how many 'Osman warnings' had been issued by police forces across the country and established that during the course of 2007 at least 1,028 such Osman Warnings had been issued. It was important to qualify this conclusion with the words 'at least', because out of the forty-three forces in England and Wales, only twenty-eight provided figures of Osman warnings. The remaining forces either cliamed that they did not hold the information, or said that it was too expensive to retrieve, whilst the Merseyside Police simply refused to provide any figures on the grounds that it would not be "of benefit to the public interest".
- Adam Fresco, Police tell more than 1,000 people that someone wants to kill them, The Times, June 9 2008
- Osman v United Kingdom, The Times, November 5 1998 reproduced at http://www.lawteacher.net/Osman.php
- Cases Involving The United Kingdom Decided By The European Court Of Human Rights
- Ewan McKendrick, Negiligence and Human Rights, Re-Considering Osman from Human Rights in Private Law (Hart Publishing, 2001)
- Mangement of threats to human life, Devon and Cornwall Constabulary Policy and Procedure D339, 30 October 2007