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18 August 2016

Caught in the cross-hairs: the firearms officer who was put on trial for murder

Channel 4’s Secrets of a Police Marksman shows us the world through the eyes of master shooter Tony Long.

By Rachel Cooke

In 2015 Tony Long, a long-serving and frequently commended Metropolitan Police firearms officer, was put on trial for the murder of Azelle Rodney, a career criminal he shot dead in Edgware, north London, in 2005. Cleared by the jury, Long is now able to talk about his experiences – or, if you want the tabloid version, to “break the code of silence” – and talk he has, even though he still has a panic button at home. First, a double-page spread in the Daily Mail, then the full treatment from Channel 4 (18 August, 10pm): tense music, endless reprises of the most important information and, yes, a voice-over by Phil Davis.

Long, it must be said, isn’t the most sympathetic or charismatic of subjects. An old-school copper who joined the police in the 1970s, dreaming that it would be just like The Sweeney, he has only to open his mouth for a cliché (“It was carnage”) or a choice item of lag-speak (“He was doing what they call a bit of business”) to fall out.

Somehow, this mattered not a bit. As 600 additional firearms officers prepare to begin work in London, and the government, made anxious by Long’s murder charge, reviews the legal protections that they will receive, it was impossible not to hang on his every word. I was interested not only in the questions of training and temperament, but in whether we, the public, sometimes have unrealistic expectations of what a firearms officer is able to achieve.

Long’s training was, it seemed, pretty basic. It took a month (we weren’t told what the duration is now). Overall, he seemed to be placid, even a little robotic. Killing a man felt to him “like being on the range”, he said, and when the producers made him meet with the activist Lee Jasper, who spoke of the perception among black people in Britain that the police are apt to carry out summary executions, he remained unfazed, repeatedly insisting that the only question in his mind was: have they got a gun?

As for our expectations of armed police, the astonishing footage the documentary-makers had dug up – of the car chase that led to Rodney’s death, and of a siege on a housing estate in Northolt, north-west London, on Boxing Day 1985 – made it all too clear why, dear reader, you wouldn’t want this job. What does one-six-hundredth of a second feel like? The answer seems to be that, faced with a man whose (supposed) weapon you can’t see, it feels like nothing and everything.

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In this era of the suicide bomber, officers are now being trained to aim, in certain situations, for a suspect’s head, so that he won’t have an opportunity to trigger an explosion. In the old days, things were more straightforward: a stand-off, and the first one to blink got it. They were more makeshift, too. In 1987 Long was given the job of foiling an armed robbery at a meat-packing factory in Plumstead, south-east London, to which he travelled in a rented Budget van, driven by two policemen disguised as butchers. He and his team were in the back, peeking out through a series of holes they had drilled and hoping that they would hear – over the increasingly frantic panting of their hot police dogs – the sound of the robbers emerging from the nearby woods. This was the first time Long killed: he shot two of the gang dead and injured a third. Afterwards, as his colleagues performed CPR, he leaned against the van. He still remembers how cool it felt against his forehead.

Between this incident and the killing of Rodney 18 years later, Long fired no bullets on duty. The film made much of his reputation as the “deadliest” officer in the Metropolitan Police – his nickname is reputed to have been “the Met’s own serial killer” – but over a 25-year career, he shot just five suspects, killing three of them. This is worth knowing. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be vigilant when it comes to arming our police, or that it is reassuring that armed officers are an increasingly normal sight (I don’t find it so). Since 2001 there have been 16 fatal shootings by the police in London, and over half of those killed belonged to ethnic minorities. But we are a long way from the madness of the United States, for which I give thanks every time Donald Trump opens his mouth. 

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This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge