In Britain, a Divide Over Racial Profiling

Two men stop by London's Stockwell subway station to look at a memorial to Jean Charles de Menezes, the man mistakenly shot and killed by police.
Two men stop by London's Stockwell subway station to look at a memorial to Jean Charles de Menezes, the man mistakenly shot and killed by police. (By Kirsty Wigglesworth -- Associated Press)
By Glenn Frankel and Tamara Jones
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 27, 2005

LONDON, July 26 -- Seven bullets fired into a young Brazilian man's head by an undercover policeman who mistook him for a suicide bomber have set off an impassioned debate over the rights and wrongs of anti-terrorism tactics and racial profiling in one of the world's most ethnically diverse cities.

Ajmal Masroor, the 33-year-old director of a community relations group here, is a highly educated and articulate Muslim of Bangladeshi origin who is welcomed as a consultant and adviser in the corridors of power. Yet when he walks the highly patrolled streets of the Whitehall government sector these days, he said, he thinks twice because police have adopted a shoot-to-kill policy against people they deem to be active terrorists.

"I am a young Asian man with a beard and a rucksack on my back and I'm thinking, am I going to be the next target?" he said, addressing a terrorism conference Tuesday at the Royal United Services Institute. The men who struck the London transit system this month all hid their bombs in such bags.

At the same session, a senior police official of South Asian ethnic origin who would not allow his name to be used said he felt queasy when "two colleagues of the firearms branch saw me running up the road with my rucksack on."

Yet after facing two coordinated bombing attacks on the city's transit system -- one of which killed 56 people, including the bombers, and injured 700 -- many people say they understand the reasons for the policy. "Shoot-to-kill keeps us secure, and I feel protected, but at the same time I'm scared," said Angel Henry, 22, an airline employee who is part Jamaican and says that at times she feels singled out for having black features. "It's a Catch-22 situation. We've got to just ride it out."

Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year-old electrician who had lived in London for three years, was gunned down execution-style -- seven bullets to the head, one to the shoulder -- in front of horrified passengers in a subway car standing Friday morning in London's Stockwell station. The officer firing at him presumed he was about to detonate a bomb after he ran from pursuing police. But as it turned out, Menezes had nothing to do with terrorism, as police conceded over the weekend.

Beyond the killing itself, what shocked many Londoners was the discovery that Menezes had been killed under instructions that had never been publicly articulated, which allow officers to shoot in the head someone they believe is about to commit a suicide bombing. Code-named Operation Kratos, the policy was put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

"Shoot first and ask questions later is what we've heard happening in Iraq," Masroor said. "It's not what we expected to happen here."

Former police commissioner John Stevens stunned many over the weekend when he wrote in a newspaper column that the policy had been imported from Israel, where the authorities had drawn a stark conclusion: "There is only one sure way to stop a suicide bomber determined to fulfill his mission: destroy his brain instantly, utterly."

Ian Blair, Stevens's successor as police commissioner, further fueled the debate when he told a Sky television interviewer that, despite his deep regrets over Menezes's death, the same thing could happen again.

The ensuing debate has not followed the usual political divide here. London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who usually is far to the left of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, has urged understanding for the police. "Consider the choice that faced police officers at Stockwell last Friday -- and be glad you did not have to take it," he wrote in Monday's Evening Standard.

But Tim Hames, a conservative columnist for the Times newspaper, urged a reexamination. "There is a world of difference between a plainclothes policeman finding himself riding on the Tube and spotting a man with a large bag behaving in a manner that makes him a potential suicide bomber and shooting him, and chasing a person onto a train carriage and firing at him," Hames wrote.

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