The destination for history

London police opening fire: 1983 to now


Few incidents are more emotive than when armed London police officers open fire and kill or seriously wound a suspect. Why is this? 

First, it’s unusual because British police officers are not routinely armed; second, because of the often criminal background of the shot person, it arouses resentment and this often leads to civil insurrection.

When Azelle Rodney was shot in 2005, Mark Duggan in 2011, and Jermaine Baker in 2015, fierce controversy arose – did the police need to shoot at all? Were those who were shot completely innocent of crime? When Jean Charles de Menezes was killed by police in 2005, there was no doubt whatsoever about his innocence; whatever else may have happened to lead to his death, the fact remains that it was a case of mistaken identity.

There was a similar case which occurred over 30 years ago. The names of the people involved are now largely forgotten, but mention ‘the yellow Mini’ and many Londoners will have instant recall of the incident.

On Christmas Eve 1982, a highly dangerous criminal named David Martin escaped from the cells at Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court in London’s West-end – and vanished.

Martin had been charged with shooting a security guard during a £25,000 robbery and attempting to murder a police officer who had confronted him during a burglary. In addition, when arrested he had attempted to make use of two guns which were part of a haul of 24 handguns and 975 rounds of stolen ammunition. With Martin on the run, the police needed to arrest him as quickly as possible; especially since 5 handguns were still missing.

Surveillance was carried out on Martin’s girlfriend who the police believed would lead them to Martin. She and a friend were followed until a yellow Mini was hired and a third, unknown person got into the car as a front seat passenger. Was that person Martin? The police thought it might be.  Darkness had fallen when the Mini was stopped in traffic. One of the police officers who had originally arrested Martin went on foot to attempt identification. He looked at the passenger and believed it was Martin. When the man turned to reach towards something in the back, the officer assumed he was going for a gun and opened fire. 

Other officers in the surveillance detail heard the sound of gunfire and believed that it was indeed Martin in the car and that it was he who had opened fire.  They too opened fire. A total of 13 shots were fired at almost point-blank range. Six struck the front seat passenger which left 11 bullet holes in the passenger's clothing and left him close to death.

The young man in the Mini was not Martin. His name was Steven Waldorf, and although he bore a very strong likeness to Martin he, like de Menezes, was an entirely innocent party. 

There was no dispute about the facts and the officers realised they had made a tragic mistake. However in the circumstances they truly believed that Waldorf was Martin and that they were in imminent danger of being shot. This case ignited questions over the Met's use of firearms and underlined a defining moment in policing.

Indeed, the influence of David Martin's case runs on to the present day and continues to impact both suspects and the 2,100 Met officers who carry a deadly weapon.

And to those who erroneously believe that London’s armed police are trigger-happy with a ‘shoot to kill’ agenda, reflect on this: in 2012, American police shot dead 409 suspects.

In the same year, British police fired just once – no one was killed.

By Dick Kirby

Sign up for our newsletter

By this author

show more books