'The need for a split second judgment that will decide between life or death is not an extreme exception. It is built into the planning.' Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
It’s a rough year to be a police officer. Theresa May’s speech to the Police Federation conference in May, telling them it was time to face reality – a Tory home secretary leading the attack on the forces of law and order – was the climax of a long spell of bad press concerning a generation of policing decisions, stretching back to the years of social unrest under Margaret Thatcher.
May’s roll call of dishonour ranged from the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence to Hillsborough and Plebgate. It might also have included undercover policing, newspaper collusion and the policing of the miners’ strike. As May warned her astonished audience that day, the very model of British policing was at risk.
The shooting by police of unarmed suspects falls into a separate category. Most of us accept that police need to be armed sometimes and admire the courage of those who don’t carry weapons. Only on Wednesday, a man was convicted of the shooting of an unarmed officer, PC Suzanne Hudson, in Leeds at the end of last year. Excluding Northern Ireland, more than 70 officers have been shot or stabbed in the line of duty since 1945.
Yet investigations – most recently the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan and the public inquiry into the shooting of Azelle Rodney – have revealed that what happens after these shootings reflects the same arrogance and impunity that led the police to attack and smear their critics at Hillsborough or in the Lawrence case in south London.
Judge from the reaction to the news that the officer known as E7, who shot Rodney in 2005, is to face a murder charge: DCC Simon Chesterman, the national police lead for armed policing, announces not respect for the law – after all, the inquiry concluded that there was no lawful justification for the shooting – but that his colleagues may down their weapons as a result.
Happily, few people die in police shootings. In the past 10 years, there have been 22 deaths and the number appears to be declining. But that still leaves 22 bereaved families who know who killed their son but have no recourse against them. It leaves wider society, on whose consent British policing depends, without the reassurance that due process provides. And it leaves senior officers without the public obligation to change the way they train firearms officers and manage the kind of operation in which Duggan and Rodney died.
The murder charge faced by E7 is the first since 2001, when PC Chris Sherwood was acquitted of murdering James Ashley, who was killed while naked and unarmed when officers raided his flat early in the morning. Sussex police finally admitted negligence and paid Ashley’s family damages. There has been only one other murder charge – also resulting in acquittal – in recent memory.
But examine the story behind the shooting of James Ashley (brilliantly told in a report by Nick Davies), the facts that emerged in the painstaking inquest into the shooting of Duggan – where the jury returned a verdict of lawful killing, currently being appealed – and the public inquiry into the death of Rodney.
The common feature of all these stories is that they are the kind of operation that can only be conducted in an atmosphere of high drama and pumped-up emotions. The need for a split second judgment that will decide between life or death is not an extreme exception. It is built into the planning. The operations demand exceptional teamwork and, for officers and suspects, the penalty for failure is death.
There were no deaths by police shooting last year. Optimists might conclude that the police have finally learned that a different style of operation can produce better results. If so, it must be at least partly because after years of resistance, they are now being forced to account for their actions.
• This article was amended on 1 August 2014 to clarify that James Ashley was not asleep in bed when he was shot by a police officer during an early-morning raid.