Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Is This Why Mark Duggan Died?

On 8 January 2014 an inquest jury ruled that the shooting of Mark Duggan on 4 August 2011 was lawful. We watched Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley trying to read his self-serving statement aloud outside the High Court in London to a hostile crowd. Our interest was piqued by AC Rowley’s earnest desire to ‘get firearms off the streets’.
     That’s the official reason why Metropolitan police officers attacked registered firearms dealer Guy Savage in February, 2011, their opening gambit being to shoot his tyres out. Then, having taken him into custody, they cleared his arms factory at Sabre House, Northolt, of all firearms, ammunition and parts. Having established that he had committed no offence in the United Kingdom, they didn’t give any of it back, as ‘keeping guns off the streets’ means shutting dealers down, the same as in the drugs market. Except that a) firearms dealers are easier to find, as they are all registered with and by their local police chiefs, and b) nobody has ever tried reducing drugs crime and illicit drug dealing by cracking down on registered pharmacists.
     Material presented at the Duggan inquest suggests the police had intelligence that he was going to obtain a firearm from somewhere, so they swooped on him when they expected to find him in possession of a firearm. That makes a change: they usually pounce on people they know have guns when they are least likely to be holding one—in Guy Savage’s case, when he was on his way to work.
      Mark Duggan spent most of his last few minutes in a taxi, which was box-stopped by three unmarked police cars. But how was he to know they were police cars? Given that he was supposedly a gangster, would the police have been on his radar? Or would he have initially interpreted what was going on as an attack by a rival gang? That would have kick-started his constitutional right to defend himself.
     In a sense it was a gang attack, of course. The Metropolitan Police are the largest armed gang on London’s streets. Something that seems to have passed AC Rowley by. Anyway, Duggan had a toy gun, said to have been adapted to fire one shot. We can’t confirm this because Michael Vaughan’s forensic report on the pistol recovered at the scene  does not seem to be on line, although the other forensic reports released to the Duggan inquest are. In these, experts tell how tried but failed to link that pistol to Mark Duggan forensically. It had blood from two other people on it, but no DNA linkage to Mark Duggan.
     That’s unsurprising, since the intel was he’d only just got the gun, and it was riding in a shoe box in the taxi. The likely scenario is that when the box-stop occurred, Duggan must have realized very quickly that either they were armed police or that they were an armed gang and he was outclassed. He most likely threw the pistol over the fence in front of him as he exited the nearside rear door of the cab.
     The police must have come around the vehicles onto the pavement from both ends of the traffic jam, as it were. The chances are Duggan saw one and tried to run away, which meant he was running at the officer who fired on him. The bullet track through his torso suggests a running position, head and shoulders forwards of hips. The police weapon was said to be an MP5, a long-barrelled shoulder-weapon intended for 100-yard shooting, loaded with +P long-range ammunition and a bullet designed to expand on impact: prohibited for use against people by a European directive, adopted by Britain, 21 years ago.
     Shoulder weapons present a number of operational problems in policing. We’ve touched on it being intended for long range shooting; there have been occasions when police have used them lethally over greater distances than they could have effectively hailed or challenged their suspects before firing. Shouldering a weapon means that your weak arm obscures your suspect’s hands, unless he’s got them above shoulder level already.
      Using high velocity ammunition in a long barrelled weapon at short range meant a through-shoot . The bullet exited Duggan and then struck another police officer. This suggests that the circumstances in which the police found (or had put) themselves was not one they’d trained for. So who let them out on the streets with live ammunition to do things for which they were untrained and unprepared? Perhaps they had trained for what happens after a box-stop and then drifted off the script, so setting themselves up for the Irish firing squad that developed. Duggan himself may have led them off the script, not having had prior training for how to respond to a police attack.
     And that’s the essential difference between him and Guy Savage. Mr Savage managed to get his surrender to armed police accepted after shots had been fired. Trained man that he is, he knew what to do to maximize his chances of surviving the police attack. Mark Duggan didn’t. He was probably trying to flee, but in all the excitement ran away from one police officer and at another. Running straight at that policeman would have been interpreted as a hostile act. So it wasn’t entirely unreasonable for the officer to open fire, although he if he’d been armed with a pistol and thus could see that Duggan was unarmed, he might not have felt any need to shoot.
      It’s too simple to say that Mark Duggan was a victim of the limited training armed officers receive and the inappropriate kit they carry. The fact is, he didn’t know how to surrender in the circumstances. If someone points a gun at you, the safest bet is to faint (or seem to). A poorly trained shooter will fire where you were before you disappeared from his view behind his own hands and when he next locates you visually he’ll assume he hit you.
      He should at least assume you’re out of the fight, and thus that you’ve surrendered. Shooting you on the ground will be harder to explain to an inquest, although not impossible, as we know from the case of Jean Charles De Menezes—another fellow who didn’t know that he needed to surrender to the biggest armed gang in London. 

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Holes in the Road

The BBC contacted the SRA on this very subject in November 2013, having realized that former Royal Marine Matt Seiber was photographing damage to road furniture and posting the images on his website ( We couldn’t deny all knowledge of the phenomenon: we’ve photographed some ourselves, and were involved in one court case on the subject in the 1990s.

Modern road signs are painted on 11-gauge aluminium; these are the ones that attract bullets. In Corsica in 1988, we saw holes that appeared to have been made by SG shot—which in France is available legally only to the police. In some parts of some US States, road signs seem to be regarded as a public provision for passing shooters, rather than as a service to travellers.

We prepared evidence for a case in which Mr B was prosecuted by Northumbria’s finest in 1999. He had a shotgun that he used on a private clay pigeon shoot in the field behind his home, and a road sign 585 feet from his rural abode had holes in it.  A man parked near the road sign claimed to have been shot at by the defendant from his home. The road sign and thus the would-be victim of this supposed incident would have been in the fall-out zone for number six shot fired from the cottage, if the gun were fired at a high enough angle in their direction.

Charter gun club member and sign-writer Ken Potts furnished us with off-cuts of the aluminium he used for road signs. We found that number six shot went through it at three feet, making a single large hole but not at 21 feet, where it made multiple dents. By the time we visited the crime scene the road sign casualty had been replaced, but, working from poor quality police photographs, we assessed the damage as having been caused by a shotgun fired at the road sign at a range of no more than about seven feet.

There was a lot of clay pigeon debris and plastic wadding to be seen in the field behind the cottage, suggesting that clays were fired on from the cottage garden, at a 90-degree angle away from the road. No evidence of shots fired in the direction of the road from the cottage was discernible in the field. The jury had to decide if Mr B had turned through 110 degrees from his clay shoot to drop shot onto the road and the victim, as claimed, or not.

The charges relating to damaging the road sign were dropped in reaction to our report. What we don’t know is whether that was because our evidence was of close action against the road sign while the victim claimed the gunman was two hundred yards away, or whether it was because the evidence, in the form of the wounded road sign, had gone missing.

Had the road sign been in place, we could have formed some opinion about the age of the damage. Bullet holes in inanimate objects remain to be seen until repaired or otherwise for as long as the object exists. The Prefecture opposite Notre Dame in Paris still bears the bullet scars of the 1944 battle by elements of the police and population to rid their city of German occupation in anticipation of the French 2nd Armoured’s arrival. War damage can also be seen around London, such as to the Obelisk pedestal on the Embankment, scarred by a bomb dropped from a Zeppelin. Visitors to Colchester, Essex,  can see bullet damage caused during the civil war in the 1640s.

The difference between buildings and road signs is that stone weathers. When aluminium is first damaged, the scratch, dent or tear looks bright silver. This weathers to a dull lead colour over time. After that, the bullet holes remain looking awesomely like bullet holes forever.

The damage seen on rural road signs may be fresh, but may be as old as the sign. We didn’t do any life tests to determine how long the damage takes to weather, so we can only say that fresh damage looks fresh, while aged damage has oxidized. The damage looks much the same whether caused a year ago or fifty.

Matt Seiber describes some of the damage he has recorded as being made by pistols. They’ve been restricted to cops and robbers since 1998, which limits the suspect list somewhat, if the damage is comparatively recent. Our observations in Corsica were that the holes were caused by road users, in the sense that the bullet wounds couldn’t be attributed to stray ammunition overshooting from a field or wood, because of the short ranges involved. The same was the case with Mr B. He’d have had to leave his property and stand on the grass verge next to the road to do the damage seen in police photographs.

We’d extend that thought to road signs generally. They face oncoming traffic and are thus edge on, as it were, to adjoining fields and are quite often shielded from the field by a hedge or other trees and vegetation. Where roads have been widened post-war, they tend to be thickly planted, particularly in cuttings. Buckinghamshire’s roads are planted with a wide variety of trees for spectacular autumn colour effects and it would be quite difficult to struggle through that lot from the field to square up to a road sign and try making holes in it.

It’s more likely, therefore, to be someone who is on the road in the first place and who probably has no business in the fields. It’s more likely to be Bonnie and Clyde testing their guns between heists than firearm or shot gun certificate holders, who got their certificates only by having somewhere safe and legal to use the guns.

It’s an offence to fire a gun on or near a public highway if doing so causes any inconvenience or interruption to another road user: unless you’re a policeman shooting Guy Savage’s tyres out. Making holes in a road sign, whether you use a firearm or a battery-operated electric drill is criminal damage. The last time we thought about this was back in 1997, when we commented darkly that it was surely no coincidence that armour-piercing ammunition was prohibited on the same day as speed cameras were legalized.

We wondered, in passing, if speed cameras had received any attention from snipers in the UK. A quick internet trawl turned up one unoccupied police camera van riddled with bullets from an automatic rifle—in the United States—and numerous reports of vandalized speed cameras. UK ones seem to suffer burn damage, although the cause is often not obvious, leaving room for the suspicion that at least some cameras commit suicide. 

A 2011 report in claimed that 44 Belgian speed cameras were vandalized in 2010, and in the five years prior to the date of the report, 49 cameras had caught fire, 19 were shot and 47 spray painted. While fire could be caused by an electrical fault within the camera, getting painted or shot couldn’t. The report also claimed that cameras had been attacked with builders’ foam (which expands to fill the space available to it), and blamed Jeremy Clarkson for the concept. Also in 2011, a bomb disposal expert was injured in the Netherlands when an improvised explosive device attached to a speed camera went off.

So much for Belgium being boring. Other reports from the same source mention camera attacks in eastern Europe, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Fire seems to be the commonest cause of damage, but in Saudi Arabia, camera vans have had to be fitted with steel grills over the windows to protect the crew from rocks thrown by passers-by. In the US, a man was hauled before the courts for attacking a camera using a catapult and marbles.

The general absence of reports of bullet holes appearing in speed cameras in the UK suggests that whomsoever made the bullet holes in road signs either has nothing against speed cameras, or that wounded road signs were shot a long time ago before cameras first appeared in 1997, or both, or even neither.

Guns Review magazine (1960-97) worried in the early 1960s about the lower classes having access to guns that they didn’t have anywhere (legal) to use. In the 19th century, after guns became more reliable and before road signs were invented, the usual victim of casual criminal damage was the weather-cock. Also in the 19th century, the Royal Mail made security guards on mail coaches buy their own powder and shot, because so much was being consumed as the coaches trundled through the countryside. They probably didn’t have road signs to shoot at then, but plenty of edible wildlife might have been suspected of planning an attack on the coach. Not to mention the occasional highwayman.

Police comments suggest that bullet holes in road signs are not particularly common, nor do they get reported often. On a scale of things, with over 20 million firearms in the UK and barely 10 per cent of them registered, the limited amount of criminal damage caused is not much to get worked up about. At least, not until road signs have lawyers.