Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Damning indictment of police actions surrounding death of Azelle Rodney

On 5th July 2013, the report of the inquiry into the death of Azelle Rodney was published. Mr Rodney was a 24-year-old man who was shot dead by a Metropolitan Police officer on 30th April 2005. Mr Rodney was the rear seat passenger in a vehicle driven by an acquaintance of his and was unarmed.
After the Metropolitan Police had brought the vehicle to a halt, a firearms officer, described as ‘E7’ in the inquiry’s report, shot Mr Rodney 6 times without warning with a Heckler & Koch assault rifle. The fifth and sixth of these shots were a military-style ‘double tap’ to Mr Rodney’s head and would have been fatal. E7 then briefly paused before shooting Mr Rodney a further two times in the head. These shots would also have been fatal.

E7 stated to the inquiry that he shot Mr Rodney because he believed that Mr Rodney had picked up a gun in the vehicle and was about to use it. The inquiry did not accept E7’s evidence. It found that E7 did not believe, for good reason, that Mr Rodney presented a threat to his life or that of his colleagues such that it was proportionate to open fire on him with a lethal weapon. The inquiry further found that even if E7 had believed that Mr Rodney had picked up an automatic weapon, E7 would have seen Mr Rodney collapsing before he fired the fatal fifth to eight shots, meaning that firing these shots so as to kill Mr Rodney was unjustified, disproportionate, unreasonable and unlawful.
Article 2 duty
The inquiry was held in order to satisfy the UK’s obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life. Article 2 entails a procedural duty on the part of the state to carry out an adequate investigation into deaths occurring under its responsibility in order to ensure the accountability of state agents. An inquest into Mr Rodney’s death would ordinarily have been the means by which the state discharged this investigative obligation, but an inquest could not be held because the coroner accepted submissions made to him that relevant intelligence material could not be shown to him or a jury.
The inquiry carried out a commendably thorough investigation and its report represents damning criticism of the Metropolitan Police’s operation and of the particular actions of E7. The inquiry could have chosen to adopt the approach of other inquiries, coroners and juries in cases concerning individuals killed by the police, by deferring to the operational pressures the police were under and substantially exonerating the police from culpability for the death as a result. After all, various such pressures existed in the Azelle Rodney case. Mr Rodney and the two men he was with in the vehicle were believed to be on their way to rob, at gunpoint, Colombian drug dealers in possession of a substantial quantity of cocaine. The police believed that the men in the vehicle had access to automatic weapons and two loaded guns were subsequently found in the vehicle, including one that was cocked and had its safety catch off. However, the inquiry’s report was clear that these factors did not justify the killing of Mr Rodney, who did nothing to cause E7 to rationally believe that he was about to use a gun.
Other criticisms made of the police by the inquiry included the following:
  • The police operation was not planned and controlled so as to minimise recourse to lethal force.
  • There were no adequate risk and threat assessments which addressed the dangers likely to arise from the police’s various tactics.
  • There was a systemic failure of communication between police officers.
  • The suspects’ vehicle should not have been deliberately rammed.
  • Rounds were fired into the wheels of the suspects’ vehicle after it had been rammed despite the fact that it presented no risk of escape.
  • Firearms officers failed to wear caps identifying themselves as police officers.
  • There was a failure to debrief the firearms officers to see what, if anything, had gone wrong or whether there were lessons to be learned.
  • No single officer of sufficient seniority and common sense was put in charge of managing the scene of the incident, which meant that Mr Rodney’s body was left where it lay, after being pulled out onto the pavement, for more than 16 hours; his blood had not been fully cleaned away by the time his family attended the scene.
The inquiry’s full report and executive summary can be found here.
The inquiry’s report is scathing about the actions of the police but its findings also lead to serious doubts about the effectiveness of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (“IPCC”) as an investigative body. The circumstances surrounding Mr Rodney’s death were first investigated by the IPCC.
Remarkably, the IPCC rejected all complaints against the police, did not recommend any prosecutions and did not make any finding of significant fault on the part of the police. These conclusions are startling in light of what was found by the inquiry. The inquiry’s report is likely therefore not only to lead to calls for the criminal prosecution of the Metropolitan Police and individual police officers but also for the reform of the IPCC so that it carries out its duty and genuinely holds the police to account.
Sarabjit Singh is a barrister at 1 Crown Office Row

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