The army is on standby to cover for Met Police firearms officers who are refusing to carry guns after a colleague was charged with murder.
An unnamed marksman was charged this week over the death of Chris Kaba in south London last year, prompting a protest from Met officers who turned in their weapons and stepped back from their duties sparking yet another crisis for Scotland Yard.
It comes as Suella Braverman has been accused of “interfering” in a live prosecution, after commenting on the ongoing case on social media. On Sunday, the home secretary said she had ordered a review into armed policing, adding “we depend on our brave firearms officers to protect us”.
Her comments on Twitter were met with criticism from Labour MPs – including former shadow attorney general Karl Turner and shadow business secretary John Denham – alongside human rights lawyers and a former chief prosecutor.
Unarmed Mr Kaba was killed by a single gunshot through the windscreen of a vehicle in Streatham Hill in September 2022.
Since the charge was announced, more than 100 armed police officers have turned in their permits allowing them to carry firearms, according to the BBC, with the Ministry of Defence now offering the support of armed soldiers to London police.
Ms Braverman said she had launched a review “to ensure they [armed officers] have the confidence to do their jobs while protecting us all” – although it is not clear who is to carry out the review, and what it could lead to exactly.
“We depend on our brave firearms officers to protect us from the most dangerous & violent in society,” she said. “In the interest of public safety they have to make split-second decisions under extraordinary pressures.
“They mustn’t fear ending up in the dock for carrying out their duties. Officers risking their lives to keep us safe have my full backing & I will do everything in my power to support them.”
Her comments quickly attracted criticism, including from Nazir Afzal, chief crown prosecutor for northwest England from 2011 to 2015, who wrote on Twitter: “This is the HOME SECRETARY intervening in an ongoing prosecution There is no justification for doing so. Would briefing police representatives privately not have sufficed? No, she has to publicly interfere and potentially, adversely, impact the case.”
Strict legal laws apply to publishing statements which could prejudice a jury at a trial and subsequently be held to be contempt of court. There have been incidents where cases have been dropped, or reheard, due to information or opinions being shared during a live prosecution case.
Former shadow business secretary John Denham asked on social media: “Has there ever in modern times been a worse, more ill-judged interference by a home secretary in the course of a criminal prosecution?”
Labour MP and lawyer Karl Turner, a former shadow attorney general, said: “It is incredibly ill-advised for any government minister, not least a former attorney general, and current home secretary to be commenting on a criminal prosecution. Any such comment risks unfairly influencing the outcome of a court case and is, potentially, a contempt of court.”
And human rights lawyer Shoaib Khan added: “Is this the home secretary publicly commenting about an ongoing murder case? If only she was a barrister and former attorney general or something, so knew the law.”
Last week, after the firearms officer was charged with Mr Kaba’s murder, Rosemary Ainslie, head of the CPS Special Crime Division, reminded “all concerned that criminal proceedings against the officer are active and that he has the right to a fair trial”.
She added: “It is extremely important there should be no reporting, commentary or sharing of information online which could in any way prejudice these proceedings.”
Met commissioner Sir Mark Rowley and senior officers have held a series of meetings with around 70 firearms officers this week to discuss officers’ concerns over the murder charge. On Sunday he welcomed the review announced by the Home Secretary.
“There is a concern on the part of firearms officers that even if they stick to the tactics and training they have been given, they will face years of protracted legal proceedings which impact on their personal wellbeing and that of their family,” he said. “While previous reviews have been announced, they have not delivered change.
“Carrying a firearm is voluntary. We rely on officers who are willing to put themselves at risk on a daily basis to protect the public from dangerous criminals, including terrorists. Officers need sufficient legal protection to enable them to do their job and keep the public safe, and the confidence that it will be applied consistently and without fear or favour.”
A Met Police spokesperson added: “Many are worried about how the decision impacts on them, on their colleagues and on their families. They are concerned that it signals a shift in the way the decisions they make in the most challenging circumstances will be judged.
“A number of officers have taken the decision to step back from armed duties while they consider their position. That number has increased over the past 48 hours.
“The Met has a significant firearms capability and we continue to have armed officers deployed in communities across London as well as at other sites including parliament, diplomatic premises, airports etc.
“Our priority is to keep the public safe. We are closely monitoring the situation and are exploring contingency options, should they be required.”
The police officer charged with Mr Kaba’s murder is set to return to court for a plea and trial preparation hearing on 1 December, ahead of a possible trial date of 9 September next year.