Last night’s docu-drama Stockwell was of course based upon the real events that led to the tragic death of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes after police mistook him for failed suicide bomber Hussain Osman.
Based on the evidence given during the criminal trial and inquest, the hour-long programme recreated the actions of the police surveillance and firearms teams in the hours leading up to the innocent 27-year-old’s death.
Directed by Jonathan Rudd, the film carried the caveat that “Where necessary, some events have been simplified and elements of dialogue created for purposes of dramatisation.”
Now that of course can muddy the waters when one is looking to find the truth of what happened and it provides a convenient get-out clause should anybody be overly critical of the police based on the programme. They could answer with, “That part was dramatisation” or “It was an oversimplification of the actual event.”
Another thing that really stood out for me is that the actor playing Jean Charles was shown to be of Mediterranean appearance, whereas in reality Jean Charles had what might be described as only ‘olive’ skin. The image above shows Osman on the left, Jean Charles on the right.
In fact, when the police surveillance officers first spotted him, they reported, “IC1 White male”. Osman had considerably darker skin than that of Jean Charles but nonetheless, he was considered a “good possible” for being Osman, code named Nettletip.
However, getting back to the film, it was also interspersed with news and CCTV footage of the July 7th bombings and the failed July 21st attack on the underground, as well as radio phone-ins that illustrated the backdrop of panic and fear against which the police operation was carried out.
The programme opened on the Stockwell tube with the sound of screaming and chaos and as undercover police officers charged into a waiting train, people could be seen running from the carriage.
As the scenes unfolded, the voiceover read out Justice Richard Henriques’ verdict at the 2007 criminal trial into the incident where the jury concluded that the Metropolitan Police failed in their duty during the police operation immediately preceding the fatal shooting.
He did not blame any individual but determined that this was a corporate failing with a number of failures contributing to the tragedy.
And what spectacular failings they were.
One of the things that struck me first – after seeing how much lighter Jean Charles’s skin was than Osman’s – was that it seemed rather dumb to think that Osman would have gone back to his address. Surely it must’ve occurred to someone that he would have to be dumber than a box of frogs to go back to where he lived?
He had deliberately left ID with the failed bomb; suicide bombers leave their ID behind so that they can be hailed as martyrs after their deaths but in this instance, the bomb of course failed to detonate so the bomber would have been well aware that it would take the police very little time to discover his address. So why on earth would he have gone back there? And of course, he didn’t. He was actually arrested in Rome later.
However, the police had a name and address; Hussain Osman lived in the flats where Jean Charles also lived on Scotia Road in London. The police immediately began surveillance on the address, but of course, Osman wasn’t there. He didn’t mind dying for his cause but he didn’t want to be caught. At the time, police didn’t know that and apparently, it hadn’t occurred to them that he had fled by then.
This was the first of a series of blunders, terrible coincidences and just plain bad luck that led to Jean Charles being shot. Next was that the surveillance teams had only a grainy photo of Osman that had been lifted from the gym membership card that he left with the bomb. They had no idea of his height, weight or physical build.
Why didn’t it occur to anyone to contact the passport office or the consulate of Osman’s home country to get a clear ID photograph? Surely that could have been done pretty quickly? Or even CCTV footage from around the flats where he lived? I realise that would have taken time but nonetheless, it seems no effort was made to get a better image of Osman, if the drama is to be believed to the letter.
However, at the time, no other image of him was given to the teams on the ground and frankly, he could have been almost any male with darker-than-white skin.
We must though bear in mind that all the time, the police were under extreme pressure brought about by the panic that 9/11 and our own 7/7 spawned. Police officers are after all only human and these particular officers were faced with the possibility that Osman was going to try again and next time, he might succeed. It was a weight of responsibility that clearly affected the actions and decisions of police.
However, what did – for me anyway – become clear early on was that Jean Charles could have been stopped and detained well before he got on the tube at Stockwell had it not been for indecisiveness and confusing orders from the Control Room. And those decisions were made by both Commander McDowall and Commander Cressida Dick.
They were determined that their surveillance officers shouldn’t intercept Jean Charles – believing him to be Osman – until the specialist firearms teams were there. However, they were first delayed by having two briefings then further delayed in heavy London traffic.
I know hindsight is 20/20 but had they just allowed the surveillance teams – who were armed – to stop Jean Charles earlier, they would have found out that he was not Osman in a situation that would have been more controlled and contained than a crowded tube train.
Another incredibly stupid mistake was that of all the surveillance teams who were parked around the flat in Scotia Road, only one officer had a camera. He’d been in the back of a van for hours and of course, the call of nature was one that he couldn’t ignore forever. When Jean Charles walked past him, that officer was in fact taking a pee in a bottle and missed him.
Why on earth weren’t there two officers in that van? Again, it’s down to poor organisation on the part of the police commanders and whoever organised the surveillance teams.
What then followed included technical errors as the police experienced problems with their radios as well as a panic induced by the fact that hesitation and poor decisions from the Commanders led to the officers on the ground being in a state of hyper-alert.
By the time Jean Charles was going into Stockwell tube station, completely oblivious to the chaos surrounding him, the firearms officers were racing to get there. The officers on foot were not given permission to detain him until it was too late, and then that permission was withdrawn anyway.
Added to all that chaos was the series of misunderstandings and badly relayed messages that affected decisions. It reminded me of that old chestnut about wartime messages and how they can become distorted by the time they’ve passed through a few sets of lips. The original message was “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” and by the time it got to its destination, the message received was, “Send three-and-fourpence, we’re going to a dance”.
Every bit of ‘evidence’ that Jean Charles was the bomber Osman was based upon the opinions of the officers on the ground. Many believed Jean Charles wasn’t Osman while others believed he was or could well have been. That was it. There was no other reason to think that he was Osman except that he had ‘olive’ skin and dark eyes.
By the time two surveillance officers had followed Jean Charles onto the train, the two members of the firearms team – who were to within minutes shoot him dead – were in a panic. They believed that Jean Charles was Osman and they further believed he could well be on the tube with the intention of detonating a bomb. Their actions are of course history and within minutes of their arrival, Jean Charles was dead.
The police made many claims at the time which, as it transpired, were untrue. Jean Charles was not wearing a padded jacket that could’ve concealed a bomb, nor did he refuse to obey police commands or jump barriers at Stockwell. He was simply sitting on the tube reading a paper. He was as stunned by the arrival of armed men screaming at him as was everyone else on the train.
What this programme did portray very well – despite some dodgy acting – was how the heightened sense of panic and responsibility for public lives affected these officers judgement. It also showed very well how that panic transferred to the Control Room and the Commanders in charge of it.
Does any of that excuse the fact that an innocent man died? No it doesn’t, but the fact is, even gun toting police officers are only human. Is that an excuse for fatally firing on an innocent man? No it is not, but they were acting on orders and were being pressurised by their senior officers. They were also aware that a train full of people may soon be dead if Jean Charles had been Osman and if he had detonated a bomb.
On that subject, you have to hand it to the surveillance officers who followed Jean Charles onto the train. Given that they believed Jean Charles was Osman and that he could well have been carrying a bomb, their bravery in getting on that train seems to have been somewhat overlooked, but that took some stones in my opinion.
There were lots of lessons to be learned from the errors made that day and I guess only time will tell if they have been, but a considerable amount, if not all, of the blame for what happened must be laid at the door of the Commanders.
Their dithering and reluctance to trust their officers who were on the spot – who all but begged for permission to detain Jean Charles when he left the flat – is ultimately why things went so tragically far.
This excellent programme cleared up a lot of the misnomers and misunderstandings around the shooting. It seemed to do so without bias and although it did make the disclaimer that some “dramatisation” had taken place, it nonetheless managed to convey the facts of the situation as well as the pressure police officers on the ground were under that day.
It was well worth watching and if you missed it, you can see it on ITV Player’s catch-up service.