CAMPAIGNS: London siege sees Met's PR at full throttle - Crisis Management

Client: Metropolitan Police PR Team: The Metropolitan Police press office covering east London Campaign: Hackney siege Timescale: Boxing Day 2002- mid-January 2003 Budget: Undisclosed

On Boxing Day, armed police were called to an East London bedsit following reports that a gunman had threatened local officers.

The gunman was Eli Hall and his threats came after police tried to tow away his car in connection with the shooting of an officer last August.

Hall was the prime suspect in the case.

The confrontation over the car in Hackney sparked a siege that lasted an unprecedented 15 days.

In the unfolding drama a hostage was unveiled and scores of local residents had their lives disrupted as police negotiators, marksmen and members of the gunman's family were embroiled in a drawn-out crisis.

Objectives

To emphasise the reasoning behind the Metropolitan Police's negotiating strategy, which was to ensure the safety of all involved, including local residents, the hostage, the gunman Eli Hall and emergency services personnel.

The Met also moved quickly to apologise to local residents, inconvenienced because 46 adults and two children were housed in emergency accommodation, while 32 adults and seven children were locked in their homes throughout the period.

This was done through the media and the Independent Advisory Group, a pan-London community body that gives advice on police cases such as hate crime.

Strategy and Plan

The Scotland Yard press bureau started work on the story on Boxing Day, but within hours two operational teams took over, including The Met's press office covering East London.

Due to illness and staff leave, the normally four-strong press team was reduced to a skeleton staff, who drew up a rota in order to be on call around the clock. Seven media strategies were drawn up to cater for a variety of scenarios, including the siege continuing, the suspect Hall coming out and being shot by police, and police entering the premises.

Above all, the press team sought to acknowledge the patience and tolerance of affected residents while underlining that negotiating was safer than pre-emptive action such as storming the building.

A designated media spokesman was named within days as Commander Bob Quick, who delivered verbal media briefings.

Operational strategy was drawn up and handled by two groups - the commander-led Gold Group based at Scotland Yard and the Silver Group, which set up base at Hackney Town Hall. Press officers were involved in most of the meetings in both groups.

As the siege went on the media sought out different angles such as the controversial issue of cost. Final press reports estimated the price of the operation at up to £1m.

Measurement and Evaluation

The press, radio and TV gave routine coverage to the story initially, but that changed with the discovery of a hostage. After his escape on 5 January, media coverage intensified when it was revealed that this was to be the longest siege ever handled by The Met.

Fifteen days after the start of the drama the police hit Hall with a 'non-life-threatening' shot in the mouth. A second shot was the cause of death and is believed to have been self-inflicted.

Reporters covering the case expressed mixed opinions on the press handling.

One regional journalist complained that press officers were either not briefed enough or over-protective of Commander Quick.

The senior information officer for The Met office covering east London, Caroline Taylor, countered that certain strategic information on secretive police divisions such as the armed SO19 squad was sensitive and had to be withheld.

Other correspondents praised the press team and Quick in particular. One national newspaper journalist contacted The Met press team and suggested the case provided a 'real example of how the police and press can get on'.

Results

The siege concluded with the death of gunman Eli Hall. Close liaison with the gunman's family led to the police releasing a statement from Hall's aunt shortly after the end of the siege, that was widely quoted by the media.

In it she said: 'I would like to thank the police for their excellent handling of the situation.It is sad that this ended so tragically.'

She is also doing follow-ups with TV programmes including London Tonight.

A police-organised public meeting on 14 January gave around 150 residents and community members a chance to discuss the siege. Most were happy with the handling, but complaints were made that officers were not briefed enough when residents were first stopped from getting to their homes by the police cordon.

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