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Ian Blair – Part 2

The interesting precedent for the Menezes case is the forced resignation of Paul Whitehouse as chief constable of Sussex Police two and a half years after the shooting by police of James Ashley in Hastings.

James Ashley had served two years for manslaughter. An informant had told Sussex Police in 1997 that Ashley and some associates were using guns and violence to take over the heroin trade in Hastings. The police had set up a stake-out near his house but had closed it without result. On 7 January 1998 a man was stabbed in a seafront bar and police heard that Ashley had been involved (he had – in breaking up the fight). On 8 January the police reactivated the stake-out.

At 4:15am on 15 January a group of heavily armed police broke into the building containing Ashley’s flat and four others. Ashley (39) was naked in bed with his girlfriend Caroline (19). He got out of bed, probably thinking he was being burgled. PC Sherwood burst into his bedroom, illuminated him with a torch on the barrel of his Heckler & Koch and shot him dead from about 2 feet away. No arms or drugs were found on the premises.

The raid, using 25 armed officers, was intended to seize a kilo of cocaine thought to have been delivered earlier to Ashley, to arrest “Tosh” McCrudden, thought to be the man who had carried out the stabbing on 7 January, and to seize a firearm kept on the premises. It used a “rapid intervention tactic” known as “Bermuda”, which was apparently intended for use where a hostage was in imminent danger of death.

Later that morning Paul Whitehouse convened a press conference and stated that “the operation had been properly and professionally planned, the use of firearms was justified, and … my officers acted properly and with due regard to everybody’s safety”. At least the first part of that, the proper and professional planning, turned out to be untrue. There were also reports that he told the press conference that Ashley was wanted for murder, which was certainly untrue, but could have been an honest confusion with McCrudden.

The Police Complaints Authority (PCA) asked Kent police to conduct an enquiry and the chief constable of Hampshire police, John Hoddinott, to look at the conduct of the highest ranks at Sussex. Following Hoddinott’s report, Paul Whitehouse was suspended by the Sussex Police Authority for three weeks and then reinstated in April 1999.

On 2 May 2001 the judge halted the Old Bailey trial of Sherwood (for murder and manslaughter) because there was no evidence to disprove his claim that he honestly believed his life was in danger (and so had fired in self-defence). At a separate trial in Wolverhampton Crown Court, three more senior officers (a superintendent, a chief inspector and an inspector), who had planned the raid, and another constable were all acquitted on 22 May when the CPS offered no evidence.

The Deputy Chief Constable, who had authorised the raid and the use of the Bermuda tactics, was suspended on full pay for three years before taking a full retirement pension aged 43, thus avoiding disciplinary proceedings.

Immediately after the acquittals, Paul Whitehouse promoted two of the officers and gave them backdated pay rises. This proved to be a step too far, the Home secretary (who had no authority in the case) criticised Whitehouse and invited the Sussex Police Authority to sack him. Whitehouse resigned in June 2001. The two reports have never been published, although extensive details were apparently leaked to the Guardian newspaper in 2001.

Ashley’s MP raised the matter in the Commons on an adjournment debate on 11 February 2002, going into the case in some detail, and claiming “… The Ashley case exposes a culture of secrecy and cover-up. The means of investigation have shown themselves to be powerless and ineffective …”

The new chief constable of Sussex finally visited Ashley’s family in late 2003 to apologise for the shooting.

The parallels with the Menezes case are astonishing: the botched operation, the absurd use of force, the acquittal (or non-prosecution) of the shooter because he was badly briefed, the misleading press announcements smearing the deceased, the subsequent promotion of some of those involved, and the failure of the police authority to take any effective action.

Clearly it is encouraging that many lessons have been learnt. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was set up with wider ranging powers than the PCA, a Health & Safety prosecution is being used to get around the problem of diffuse responsibility with no individual meeting criminal criteria of guilt, and apologies were made to the family much more quickly.

On the other hand, it is not so clear that police behaviour has been much improved, either before or after the event (apart from the apology). In the next part I will turn to Ian Blair’s role in the misleading press statements. I intend to leave the details of the botched operation until more details emerge in the 1 October trial.

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