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Comment: we need to talk about legitimate police searches

Hopefully there will be a positive officer safety legacy to emerge from the murder of Sgt Matt Ratana.

Comment: we need to talk about legitimate police searches

Date - 23rd June 2023
By - Gary Mason
3 Comments 3 Comments}

The circumstances leading up to the murder of Sgt Matt Ratana in a cell inside a south London custody block are freakish. It was improbable that Louis De Zoysa would be in possession of an antique .41 revolver, legal because the calibre of ammunition is obsolete but lethal nonetheless because De Zoysa manufactured his own bullets for the firearm.

It was also improbable that the officers who searched him on the street found the ammunition but not the firearm despite what DAC Stuart Cundy described today as far from “a cursory search.”

It was even more improbable that De Zoysa would be able to grasp the gun and shoot Sgt Ratana inside his cell with his hands cuffed behind his back. The prosecution cited his hypermobility as a possible explanation.

Yet all these improbable circumstances conspired in the tragic death of a much loved sergeant who was only months away from retirement having served the majority of his career as a street officer and who was well aware of policing’s risks.

It is only right that since this dreadful murder the Met and the NPCC have taken steps to minimise the risks that even this set of improbable circumstances present. Urban custody suites are busy, noisy places and can be chaotic at times so it will be interesting to see what the pilot of the Met’s airport security body scanner tells us about their viability in a policing environment.

Hopefully this murder will provide food for thought for those who cry foul around the various machinations of police searches. UK policing does not adopt the routinely aggressively defensive tactics deployed by US officers, often at gunpoint. And many will give thanks for that.

But thorough searches of suspicious individuals are often necessary and proportionate. With stop and search critics race to point the finger at statistics which show that in most cases nothing is found on the individual. They conveniently block out the possibility that the individual alerted to police presence may have stashed or discarded the weapon or contraband or both before the search is carried out.

And as this tragic case should remind the critics there is no power for police to require a person to remove any clothing other than a coat, jacket or gloves in a public place.

The introduction of detection wands as standard kit in response cars might reduce the need for more intrusive searches in cases where suspicion is not backed up by electronic detection.

None of which will alter the terrible events in Croydon in September 2020. Ken Marsh, Chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation, summed up the collective grief of the MPS as follows:

“Sgt Matt Ratana was the best of us. A larger than life, much loved and brave Metropolitan Police Officer missed to this day by all who knew him. 

“To hear and sadly be forced to see details of his death during the course of this trial has been harrowing for many colleagues who knew and respected this superb cop. 

“Colleagues will be pleased to see justice has been served in this case and we hope that his killer pays the heaviest price for murdering a police officer. He should spend the rest of his life in custody. 

“We would like at this time to also pay tribute to the painstaking work of Metropolitan Police detectives in this case. The difficulty of having to investigate the murder of a friend and colleague cannot be underestimated.

“Our thoughts remain with Sgt Ratana's partner, family and friends from across the world - and his close colleagues. The good memories of Matt and legacy of his life will live on.”

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Ordered by:
Anon - Sat, 24 June 2023

As mentioned elsewhere. A change in legislation requiring a stringent search regime and handcuffing in all cases unless objectively not possible should be introduced post arrest. Anything less will continue an identified and unacceptable risk. RIP Sgt Ratana. A great loss to policing.