Disarming terror suspects

August 22, 2005

THE FATAL police shooting of a Brazilian passenger on a London subway in the aftermath of last month's suicide attacks can no longer be viewed as a tragic case of mistaken identity. Reports in the British press suggest a more troubling scenario - a shoot-to-kill policy poorly enforced and an alleged cover-up.

The circumstances of this case should compel police here and abroad to review policies intended to stop suspected suicide bombers dead in their tracks. The shooting reinforces the grave need for a dispassionate assessment of potential suspects in this post-9/11 world, guidelines that promote caution as well as rigor and specialized training to carry them out.

The execution-style shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes followed the July 7 terrorist attacks on the London transit system that killed 52 people. The atmosphere was indeed charged: The suicide bombers were British residents of South Asian descent.

Fears were compounded by the discovery July 21 of four bombs in the subway, left by four dark-skinned men. Mr. de Menezes was killed during a hunt for those suspects as British Muslims voiced concerns about racial profiling.

The initial accounts of the July 22 shooting described an unidentified suspect, wearing a bulky coat in 70-degree weather who jumped a turnstile during a police chase. Police were said to have wrestled the man to the ground and shot him in the head. A day later, officials admitted an innocent man had been killed, but the lingering fear over suicide attacks seemed to mitigate the police's mistake. It was tragic, but understandable.

New reports about the de Menezes shooting demand a different reaction. British media reports say he was not fleeing police. He left a house that was under surveillance, but he was wearing a jean jacket. He calmly entered a subway station, paid with his transit card and ran to catch a train.

Once inside, amid shouts of "police," he rose from his seat, was tackled by an armed officer and shot - seven times in the head. By this account, he neither looked nor acted like a suspected suicide bomber.

Weeks before the incident, the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued new guidelines advising police to shoot suicide bombers in the head to avoid detonating their explosives. But as police consider adopting such a policy, their primary focus should be on developing a behavioral profile that will help identify a suspect. Because the critical question that first must be answered is not where to shoot, but whether to shoot.

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