Brazil, world centre of terrorism

Main take-home from the weekend’s revelations: if you give the police carte blanche to shoot people on suspicion, then innocent people will get shot by the police.

This isn’t the fault of individual policemen, relatively few of whom are particularly bad people; it’s just what happens when you allow inexperienced individuals to make life-or-death judgements on the basis of not-a-lot. At war against another army, you can safely make everyone adopt a ‘shoot the enemy unless they’re clearly surrendering’ rule. Peacekeeping in a warzone is more judgement-based, which is why US troops keep wiping out innocent Iraqi families.

Oddly enough, I don’t want the police in the city where I live to behave like US soldiers in Iraq. I want the police to be told that they bloody well shouldn’t shoot anyone unless they have the go-ahead from senior officers, and I don’t want this to be forthcoming unless the whole operation is backed by real intelligence (by which I don’t mean ‘someone we think is dodgy lives in the same block of flats, and the chap you’re targeting looks like he might be an Arab’). Any policeman who’s thinking of shooting people should be fully uniformed, and should make his police status known before he starts brandishing firearms.

And anyone who automatically assumes the authorities are Acting In Good Faith and/or Doing The Right Thing should probably question their judgement right about now.

Relatedly, Tim Hames is a good man, and Ken Livingstone is disappointingly not. And trying to shoot the poor bugger who was driving the train seems, err, mentalist. Oh, and Lord Stevens is still a cunt.

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60 thoughts on “Brazil, world centre of terrorism

  1. I still think people are rushing to judgment here. Certainly the police have now adopted a shoot-to-kill policy (well, Ian Blair says so, and he’s not completely compromised yet, so I think I believe him) and under the circumstances that means police officers making snap decisions as to whether they should shoot a person or not.

    The important question is how often they’re going to make a cock-up like this compared to how often they shoot an actual suicide bomber, how those two things trade off against one another, and what an acceptable level of accidental shootings by police is. Those are pretty hard questions to answer and I can guarantee that public discussion of them is likely to be very ill-informed.

  2. Certainly the police have now adopted a shoot-to-kill policy (well, Ian Blair says so, and he’s not completely compromised yet, so I think I believe him)

    grind teeth grind teeth. A shot-to-kill policy really is the sort of thing that there shouldn’t be any uncertainty at all whether you have one or not. I would regard the current process (an undisclosed memo from the ACPO to all firearms officers, I think) as a silly and undemocratic way to make changes to the out-of-town superstore planning guidelines; for something like this it’s outrageous.

    It also doesn’t appear that the new policy has been accompanied by any alteration to the training of officers, which seems more or less bonkers to me.

  3. Forgetting the shoot to kill policy for a moment…

    Why on earth was this Brazillian guy’s flat under suspicion? He, by all accounts, had no link to either bomb attacks and was merely an electrician.

    One has to wonder about the progress of the investigation if complete random’s houses are being beseiged. On what basis did they follow this chap? Because he was foreign? Because he was olive skinned (almost brown, that…)? Or because they have awful intelligence and they don’t know what else to do? Its quite worrying.

  4. I suspect that what happened is that the policemen panicked. Understandably, and I find it hard to condemn them because I suspect that I would be worse than useless with a government-issue gun in my hand.

    Otoh, I think that a contributory factor in the panic could easily have been that they had been given unclear orders. This "I Can’t Believe It’s Not A Shoot-to-kill Policy" is just a complete mess, and having ambiguous instructions (and thus having to make a spur of the moment decision) is bound to have materially increased the stress they were under. There needs to be a big old public inquiry into this.

  5. David — my impression was that it was in the same block as one of the suspects’ flats.

    A shot-to-kill policy really is the sort of thing that there shouldn’t be any uncertainty at all whether you have one or not.

    Agree absolutely — don’t imagine for one moment that I’m defending this idiocy!

    I note, however, from this New York Times article (linked to from a previous piece),

    Instead, for the first time, police used special aim-for-the head tactics under a plan adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. The plan is described on the official London police Web site as a four-stage "coordinated response to suicide attacks."

    That said, I can’t find it on http://www.met.police.uk; I’d be interested to read it, though.

  6. Why on earth was this Brazillian guy’s flat under suspicion? He, by all accounts, had no link to either bomb attacks and was merely an electrician.

    It doesn’t take much. Many years ago an IRA man was arrested in New York. In his address book was the address of a friend of mine (now a barrister). The two had never met. One morning my friend was awoken by armed police ….

    People like electricians and plumbers are probably at greater risk than the rest of us of their names and addresses turning up in the possession of perfect strangers.

  7. my impression was that it was in the same block as one of the suspects’ flats

    The word that the Met has been pretty consistently using is "house" – I’ve never been to Stockwell but suspect that it is not unlike North London in the sense of being made up of large multistorey houses which were single dwellings a hundred years ago but have now been divided into flats.

  8. "Main take-home from the weekend’s revelations: if you give the police carte blanche to shoot people on suspicion, then innocent people will get shot by the police. "

    That’s already the case, there’s no change in policy only the device / equipment used by the perpetrator.

    If you go wandering down the street firing a starting people in the air you are very likely to get yourself shot. That does make you innocent of holding a deadly weapon in hindsight but the only relevant information is what the police considered your threat level to other life was at the moment they shot you (i.e. did they think it was a real gun or not?).
    You’re simply an idiot for bluffing and getting called, the police would have made no error in shooting you whatsoever.

    Similarly heading into Sizewell B with a big box labelled Acme Explosives (but filled with foam) and not stopping when challenged would also get you shot. Again absolutely justifiable…

    All you armchair pundits should remember that all police / military decisions are made on imperfect information and it’s all to easy to be smart after the fact….
    Ultimately it’s a split second judgement call from someone with limited hard facts and a damn sight better experience base than any of you have, but at the end of the day that’s all it is, a judgement call.

    Now do shut up about trigger happy BNP blueshirts in SO13 as it’s just not true.
    The inquiry (there’s always one after a police shooting) will report and any lessons learned will be disseminated in due time.

  9. Yes, but there seems to be something of a difference between "firing a starting pistol in the street" and "wearing a coat in the summer". I don’t think the police did this ‘cos they were racist; I do think the circumstances of this case as reported shouldn’t be sufficient to warrant shooting-to-kill.

    Maybe the enquiry will show that the facts lie more in the police’s favour than they currently appear to be, in which case I’ll happily retract any criticisms I’ve made here that are shown to be unjustified.

  10. It turns ot that the Brazilian was in the wrong country at the wrong time. He had grossly overstayed his visa. He was an illegal immigrant, in effect. So lax immigration controls leads a touch of the responsibility back to recent Home Secretaries, maybe. At least it does if any semblance of Parliamentary responsibility remains.

    Thye police challenged him properly, it appears. He shold not have vulted the ticket barrier and bolted – thereby giving them further cause to worry about a bomb.

    Some of us want the police to be authorised to take all necessary steps to protect us. Shit happens – but better that than the police not being authorised to stop people with deadly force in extremis, when they think the greater risk is a bomb explosion.

    Oh – and trust this ridiculous site never to give a damn about the police themselves and the danger they thought they were in.

  11. It turns ot that the Brazilian was in the wrong country at the wrong time. He had grossly overstayed his visa. He was an illegal immigrant, in effect.

    I was going to point out the disgraceful irrelevance of bringing this matter up… and then I noticed who had posted it.

  12. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if we were all carried firearms. Where are ‘right to bear arms’ crowd when you need them?

  13. Re the tube driver, is it just me who’s starting to feel a bit left out? Why haven’t the police pointed a gun at me? What am I, chopped liver?

  14. Isn’t the visa thing possibly relevant, though? I mean, the guy obviously DID have something to hide from the authorities, even if it is not really all that serious in the circumstances. He MAY have thought they were after him for this. It hardly justfies execution, but it might go a way to explain why he ran away.

    As for right to bear arms, surely it is obvious that 100 people killed by armed citizens in various overreactions and accidents are far better – because it’s liberty – than 50 killed by terrorists???

  15. Some of us want the police to be authorised to take all necessary steps to protect us

    I’m quite sure you’d be one of the first to bitch and moan if you or your family were locked up or shot arbitrarily because "we thought he had a bomb." Think about it.

  16. "surely it is obvious that 100 people killed by armed citizens in various overreactions and accidents are far better – because it’s liberty – than 50 killed by terrorists???"

    Er…no. It’s not obvious. Is this meant to be funny?

  17. Of course it is Euan. I mean, we obviously need to arm ourselves in order to protect ourselves from Government tyrrany!

  18. Yes, it is meant to be funny. It’s called irony, which is not just a property of steel.

  19. I’ll rephrase it a bit:

    We obviously need to arm ourselves to the teeth with guns and bombs in order to protect ourselves from becoming the slaves classes of the evil politically correct leftist-Stalinist EUSSR al-BBC NuLabour Blair Government tyrrany!

  20. Still not a word here about the awful quandary the police were in. Lots of seething – but no credible solution. Typical.

    Yes, I think the poor man probably bolted because he was an illegal immigrant. There will be a full enquiry, probably followed by a statement to the commons. Until then most comments are otiose, mere handwringing.

    Profuse apologies have been made by the Met Commissioner and Cabinet Ministers already.

  21. Not terribly profuse: "we’re sorry he’s dead but we’d do the same thing again" would be a fair paraphrase of Ian Blair’s apology.

  22. Still not a word here about the awful quandary the police were in. Lots of seething – but no credible solution. Typical.

    What do you mean by "here"? This particular thread, or SBBS as a whole?

    If the latter, I think you’ll find there were plenty of words about the police’s awful quandary amongst the 100-plus posts of this thread – which you obviously knew about, since you contributed to it.

    What was that about "lots of seething"?

  23. Lots of seething – but no credible solution. Typical.

    So arming the citizenry isn’t a credible solution all of a sudden?

  24. Here in this thread. Seething.

    And no constructive suggestions.

    Reads like the cynical manipulation of an unfortunate and publicly regretted death.

    Sick, mostly.

  25. Here in this thread.

    Your claim’s still bollocks, even with that convenient restriction.

    Here’s Chris B at a relatively early stage of the discussion: "All you armchair pundits should remember that all police / military decisions are made on imperfect information and it’s all to easy to be smart after the fact…. Ultimately it’s a split second judgement call from someone with limited hard facts and a damn sight better experience base than any of you have, but at the end of the day that’s all it is, a judgement call. Now do shut up about trigger happy BNP blueshirts in SO13 as it’s just not true.

    And here’s you, two hours later, posting in exactly the same thread: "Still not a word here about the awful quandary the police were in. "

  26. "So lax immigration controls leads a touch of the responsibility back to recent Home Secretaries, maybe."

    "Reads like the cynical manipulation of an unfortunate and publicly regretted death."

  27. Hugely cynical, since it’s by no means certain that Menezes’ visa had expired – the security services say it had, his family says it hasn’t.

    But since both parties have a vested interest in being proved right, might I suggest waiting until such proof actually emerges before hijacking this tragedy for use in an anti-immigration argument? Even if it’s only to avoid a charge of flagrant hypocrisy?

  28. No doubt there’ll be further attempts to smear the late Mr Menezes & suggest he’s in some way responsible for his own demise.
    To respond to Chris L’s original comment:
    It’s easy –
    Acceptable level of accidental shootings by police: zero.
    Acceptable level of suicide bombings by terrorists: zero.
    I don’t suppose for a moment we’ll be so lucky.

  29. Nick — yes, I’d certainly accept those levels, too! However, I don’t think they’re achievable by adjustment of real-world policies.

    For the sake of argument, let’s say that we value the life of person killed accidentally by the police the same as the life of a person killed by a suicide bomber, and don’t value the life of the suicide bomber at all. Let’s further suppose that policing tactics have no effect upon the future supply of suicide bombers. Then the aim of the exercise is to minimise the sum of accidental police shootings and of victims of suicide bombings.

    Now, without knowing a bit more about the situation we can’t get much further than that, but it’s anyway worth pausing for a moment to see how much this makes sense. Let’s say the average suicide bomber kills ten people, and that we can stop one suicide bomber at an average cost of (say) nine accidental shootings. So in scenario one, some wanker blows up a bus killing ten police. In scenario two the police shoot him in the head before he does so, but also kill another nine people accidentally, after mistaking them for THE TERRORISTS. Are we happy with that? What if it was eight accidental deaths or one?

  30. Chris – the only part of your analysis I’d disagree with is your assumption that the actions of the police will have no effect upon the supply of terrorists. We can reasonably infer, from numerous examples, that they will . . .

  31. Yeah, but that makes the analysis difficult, so I ignored it. Now, I have this bridge… uh, I mean, these weapons of mass destruction to sell you

  32. Chris: I don’t fully agree. I’d rather live in a country where the police were much less likely to kill innocent people than terrorists were. To quantify, perhaps I’m happy with one/two accidental deaths to stop one suicide bomber killing ten.

    Why? Because the police are meant to be protecting me: I can somehow accept a degree of risk of random death from terrorist action (or car crash, cancer etc.) but I have a real problem with a remotely similar level of risk of dying at the hands of the police.

    Let’s further suppose that policing tactics have no effect upon the future supply of suicide bombers.

    This, sadly, seems a rather suspect assumption. Everything is pointing to the police/security services having no idea about the terrorists, so we despirately need to keep as many people in the Muslim community on-side as possible, as a way of getting some human intelligence.

    Finally, in this particular case, there seem to be some very dodgy things which have occured. I really cannot accept that if the police have got into the situation of sitting on some suspect, on a train, that the best course of action is to execute them. Either they should have stopped Menezes much earlier (before he got on a bus, say) or they shouldn’t have had to have killed him. This is why I think we need, say, a statement on exactly what the armed police have been told to do…

  33. I don’t fully agree. I’d rather live in a country where the police were much less likely to kill innocent people than terrorists were. To quantify, perhaps I’m happy with one/two accidental deaths to stop one suicide bomber killing ten.

    Well, I haven’t stated what ratio I’d be happy with! (TBH I’m not really sure.) But there is a sensible debate to be had about this, and we’re sure as hell not going to see it in the mainstream media, so we may as well have it here.

    … This is why I think we need, say, a statement on exactly what the armed police have been told to do…

    yeah, I’d like to see one too. As I mentioned somewhere else the New York Times article on the shooting mentioned a Metropolitan Police briefing on their website describing their planned "coordinated four-stage response" to suicide bombings. I was not able to find this document, but hopefully somebody else will.

  34. I don’t think the tradeoff exists. Outside a suspiciously simple cod-Bayesian model of police decision-making, I don’t think that a tradeoff exists between false positives and false negatives. I think that under any realistic model of the process by which one might come to the decision to shoot someone, we would be well inside any efficient frontier.

  35. This has happened before – James Ashley in 1998. Some poor copper sat through a briefing that is pretty much guaranteed to leave him thinking ‘kill or be killed’, then goes on to kill a naked man. The problem is that British forms of police accountability are obsolete. They will leave the copper who pulled the trigger in the dock, and maybe even the person talking into his earpiece, but neglect the people who ran the operation, and the people who structured the procedures in the first place. Personally, I hope that this gets investigated, and the structures are changed, but I also hope that the copper concerned doesn’t get blamed for it.

    Of course, according to the Decent Left, we have to blame the copper. He pulled the trigger and killed an innocent man, so any attempt to contextualise the killing with reference to why he thought he was doing good makes us apologists for The Terrorists. We might possibly also blame the people who persuaded him to do it, but we must never mention what he thought he was reacting to, or we will be Eee-vvviilll.

    Hang on, did I get that right?

  36. Snivelling idiots.

    The police are on the side of Londoners.

    Many here are not. Mostly convolted claptrap.

    And you know it.

  37. The police are on the side of Londoners.

    Many here are not.

    Would you care to offer one single piece of evidence to back up this intriguing assertion? Especially given that most of the posters in this thread are Londoners, or at the very least people who live there and regularly use its public transport system?

    So name names: which of us is "anti-London", and on what basis are you making this charge?

  38. Personally, I hope that this gets investigated, and the structures are changed, but I also hope that the copper concerned doesn’t get blamed for it.

    In this particular case, it’s critically important that we don’t forget the context. Clearly, ghastly mistakes were made on both sides, but the uniquely jumpy atmosphere of last Friday is something that’s easy to forget when considered in the cold light of day, even though it’s an absolutely crucial factor.

    There was an excellent post on this subject by SeanT at Harry’s Place, and I hope I’m not incurring his wrath or the attentions of copyright lawyers by reproducing most of it here, as I think it does a great job of itemising the chain of coincidences that led to this tragedy:

    I think we can mostly agree on some things: the Stockwell events were a terrible tragedy, but they were also a fairly unique combination of fatal circumstances.

    1. Day after the bombs
    2. He came out of a block of flats, or a house, or a multi-occupancy house (does this really matter?) connected with terrorists
    3. Armed police were therefore tailing him
    4. He was fairly dark skinned
    5. He was wearing a big winter coat on a mild day
    6. He was an illegal immigrant, so jumpy about authorities
    7. He ran when police challenged him
    8. He vaulted over the ticket gates at the Tube
    9. He then ran straight onto a packed Tube train

    Take away any one of these and he probably wouldn’t have died. Take two or three and he would definitely have survived. It was therefore an horrific but almost incredible combination of bad luck and mistiming. It would be very tough to crucify the cop that did this – not last cause it is pretty damn unlikely to happen again, for reasons cited.

  39. I don’t think that a tradeoff exists between false positives and false negatives.

    I don’t believe this, but I’m not really sure where you’re coming from with it.

  40. I’m going to write a longer post about this. The basic idea is that when we’re thinking about "X innocent man killed in order that we catch Y guilty men and save Z innocent people" then any attempt to attach quantitative numbers to X, Y and Z surely has to be based on an implicit model linking X and Y. I’m not so sure that such a model exists; you can’t increase Y by tolerating a higher X and most policies you can carry out to decrease X won’t have the effect of decreasing Y. So I think that even your post of 2:16:07 PM is probably conceding too much to the "shit happens" brigade; even if they were to swallow one half of your reductio argument, they’re trying to minimise a function which doesn’t exist.

  41. I’m going to write a longer post about this.

    ditto….

    I’m not so sure that such a model exists; you can’t increase Y by tolerating a higher X and most policies you can carry out to decrease X won’t have the effect of decreasing Y.

    OK. I was thinking about the model where we have various suicide-bomber-like behaviours that we watch for (see that Israeli "how to spot a suicide bomber" advice leaflet which I can’t find right now, or the thing Michael Brooke quoted earlier for examples) and use to determine who is innocent and who is guilty.

    Now, if those suicide-bomber-like behaviours also have possible innocent explanations (i.e., they’re things like "is wearing a heavy coat during the summer" rather than "has been observed by police surveillance cameras making a bomb") then we’re basically guaranteed that X and Y trade off against one another, aren’t we? And in the case where the police are overstretched, don’t really know who they’re after and fear an attack in the very near future, the tests we user are going to be quite susceptible to false positives.

  42. Hum but even the Israelis who hand that leaflet out don’t use it as the basis for shooting people five times in the head without asking questions (actually, digging around, the sudden grab-and-shoot approach is much less common in Israel than you’d think). If you’ve reached the point where a) suicide bombers are so prevalent and/or b) intelligence-led operations are so off the menu, then I would have guessed that things would have got so bad that it was probably time to be thinking about how awful it would really be after all for Sevenoaks to be part of the Caliphate.

  43. ah, ok, so your statement was based on the assumption that for each ‘indicator of suicice-bomber-ness’ the probability that it would match an innocent person is extremely small, so that the distribution of scores for suicide bombers doesn’t overlap much with the distribution for non-suicide-bombers? But AFAICS that doesn’t eliminate the tradeoff — it just means that the equal error rate can be very small.

  44. Well … yeh, but only in the sense that there is a Laffer curve existent in some Platonic realm if we had an optimised constant-single-marginal-rate tax system. If we were on the efficient frontier, with a list of characteristics that provided the maximum differentiation between SB and non-SB, then I can see how raising or lowering the number of ticks needed to shoot someone would trade off false positives against false negatives. But as it is, we’re nowhere near that. There’s lots of things that we can do that would decrease both false positives and false negatives (like get better intelligence) and no guarantee that simply turning up the sensitivity of the half-baked SB-detector we have will increase the number of true positives. To me it resembles a credit-scoring problem; if you want to lend to a riskier class of borrower, then dialling down the credit standards on your existing scoring model is usually the wrong thing to do.

  45. Michael – On Sean’s points, I think it’s the last three that must have been crucial. The Police let him get on a bus, so couldn’t have been that concerned about him then. They also (apparently) as he got off the bus approached him with standard warnings, which also must mean they didn’t expect him to explode himself. I suspect they were planning to arrest him at that point still.

    I think that’s a good thing, as the first six points I don’t think are that unlikely to be repeated (with an addition of ‘s’ to the day in point 1, and deleting everything after ‘flats’ in point 2 (and yes it does matter), and perhaps generalising 6).

  46. Sorry to keep going on about this, but…

    There’s lots of things that we can do that would decrease both false positives and false negatives (like get better intelligence) and no guarantee that simply turning up the sensitivity of the half-baked SB-detector we have will increase the number of true positives.

    So, in this model, getting more intelligence information will increase the number of factors, separating the two distributions more. There will be places where the marginal effect of changing the decision threshold on the number of true positives is small (at the center of the distribution for the suicide bombers) but that’s not necessarily where you’d put it anyway, is it?

  47. Well not necessarily. It strikes me that it’s a triage rather than a separation of distributions. There are people who are definitely suicide bombers and are identifiable specifically (the one-factor model "is he Billy Blogs? yes/no"), and then there are people who might or might not be suicide bombers and need to be separated on the basis of characteristics. If you know the population of SBs is small and you have a functional intelligence-gathering process, then it strikes me that the best use of intelligence would be to work on increasing the comprehensiveness of the first category rather than refining the discrimination in the second. I suppose that this would still leave some discrimination effects because there are cases of mistaken identity but I don’t think that this is well described as a tradeoff; there is clearly a model under which you gain true-positives at the expense of false-positives by changing the orders from "shoot Billy Bloggs" to "shoot people who you are more than 80% certain are Billy Blogs" but I don’t think it’s psychologically plausible. Terrorist hunting looks much more like case-by-case underwriting than actuarial science to me.

  48. This is all getting very yellow Mini – you’ll remember that the guy who got shot by the Met then, Stephen Waldorf, was hanging around with the bad guy’s girlfriend, and even looked like the bad guy. But he wasn’t the bad guy.

    It looks like the IPCC* are going to be investigating the context of the shooting, which is good.

    *Is is just me, or do these initials fill anyone else with a subconscious feeling of safety, derived from long years spent reading Jack Vance’s space operas?

  49. Daniel — so far as I know (and I haven’t seen the relevant document) the orders are of the form "if you believe that somebody is a suicide bomber and need to stop them from blowing up themselves and others, then shoot them in the head". I hope it’s not an order of the form "if you see Billy Bloggs, shoot him"! You might well know that Billy Bloggs has prepared to be a suicide bomber, but that doesn’t mean that a police officer should shoot him dead if they see him on the street obviously without a bomb.

    So now we’ve got two conditions: on watch list / not on watch list, and seems like a SB / does not seem like a SB. But we still need to make exactly one decision….

  50. I see what you mean, but surely if we think that the watch list is reasonably comprehensive then we don’t want to set very much weight at all on the "seems like" condition? It looks like a hierarchical model to me; if an identified watch-list member is behaving like he’s got a bomb on him, then shoot. Otherwise you’re in one of two cases; a watchlist member with no particular reason to suppose he’s got a bomb (don’t shoot) or someone you’ve never seen before acting like someone with a bomb. The difficult case is the third one but even here I’m not sure that a checklist (and associated tradeoff) is really the way to model it because the decision is going to be made on the basis of the gestalt; all things considered, do I have a bad (enough) feeling about this guy?

    I would also suspect that you would have to be really quite pessimistic about a) the total population of suicide bombers and b) the proportion of that population who were on watchlists before you were a situation where it was the right thing to do to give orders for dealing with case 3′s under which you expected to have material numbers of people getting shot[1] on the basis of behavioural scoring.

    [1]I suppose that a single police shooting is a material number in this case but even so.

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