David A Alexander: Time to confront shoot to kill policy

Police policy of shoot to kill was described in 2005 by Charles Clarke as 'inappropriate'. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Police policy of shoot to kill was described in 2005 by Charles Clarke as 'inappropriate'. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE terrorist threat posed by a marauding spree killer presents the most severe challenge, writes David A Alexander

The police policy of shoot to kill was described in 2005 by Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, as “inappropriate”, and more recently Calum Steele, of the Scottish Police Federation, stated that it was “unhelpful”.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, has endorsed two competing views, thereby, conveying his ambivalence. In view of the level of threat posed by well-armed, organised terrorists and “suicide bombers”, the use of lethal force by our authorised firearms officers [AFOs] requires a frank and thorough consideration.

A distinction needs to be made between policy and outcome. Nothing can guarantee the path of a bullet once discharged into the human body. Rounds may be deflected by underlying bony structures, and they may also disintegrate or “yaw” [ie, tumble in flight].

Such destabilisation of a round will have variable effects ranging from death to limited damage. Also, some individuals can be more dangerous when wounded than when not, and some may be able to tolerate several shots but still remain a serious threat because they may be “fuelled” by alcohol/drugs or by a fanatical commitment to an apocalyptic ideology. Moreover, the human body generates its own opiates [endorphins] which mask pain and create an extraordinary resilience after being shot.

The terrorist threat posed by a marauding spree killer or bomber represents the most severe challenge, not only for the reasons described above, but because for them life has no value and death has no fear-martyrdom beckons. Less lethal methods than firearms are totally inadequate, and suggestions that officers should try to shoot weapons out of terrorists’ hands, or to incapacitate by shooting, for example, at their lower limbs, are useless: they belong only in the realm of B movies.

The AFO’s challenge is further increased by our physiology. Firing rounds according to conventional protocols, using conventional ammunition, into the conventional target area (namely, the frontal, central body mass) will not inhibit natural reflexes. Thus, even when the subject has suffered a mortal wound, he will still be capable of a trigger squeeze (an AK47 – the most popular weapon of the terrorist – will discharge ten rounds a second), and he will still be able to activate an explosive “vest”.

In recognition of these factors, the authorities have already drawn up several protocols which define when an AFO may adopt a more militaristic and exceptional approach to neutralise all threat [intentional and reflexive]. There is only one way to stop a perpetrator literally “dead in his tracks”, and that is by shooting him in the brain stem [located in the lower posterior area of the brain]. The “flaccid incapacitation” achieved thereby will ensure all reflex activity is instantaneously shut down. However, such a head shot will also inevitably cause death. Thus, the question arises: is this the outcome of deliberately “shooting to kill to protect” or is it merely an unavoidable secondary consequence of another more euphemistic strategy?

Nobody is proposing an “open season” for AFOs to kill indiscriminately. In my 20 years of working with such officers, I have never met one who had a wish to kill. The British police have consistently shown a commendable restraint in the use of their firearms, often in the face of severe provocation and at personal risk. The number of weapon discharges is a very small proportion of all armed deployments.

AFOs are a cadre of well-trained professionals, and they know full well the consequences for them of taking a life. There will often be public opprobrium and ill-founded allegations, and there will certainly be detailed and commonly protracted legal and other inquiries. These are highly stressful for the officers under investigation.

Whatever semantics are used to describe the protocols relating to the police use of firearms, I suggest we have the strongest grounds to trust the professionalism of our armed officers. I accept mistakes will be made, but firearms are inherently dangerous, and there is always a risk of error when human decision-making is required in a crisis.

This is not a time for biased debate and pious euphemisms; society needs to confront squarely contemporary realities: our police have to.

• Emeritus Professor David A Alexander