An inquest into the death of the Westminster attacker, Khalid Masood, heard that Sir Craig Mackey, Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, was being driven out of the Houses of Parliament on 22 March 2017 and witnessed Masood stabbing PC Keith Palmer to death.
Masood had run down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and crashed his car into the railings of the Palace of Westminster. He then ran through Parliament’s Carriage Gate entrance brandishing two knives.
At the inquest Sir Craig recalled locking the doors of his chauffeur-driven car. He said: “A colleague in the car had clearly seen what had gone on as well, and I locked the door,” he added “I’ve got no protective equipment, no radio. We were in a ministerial meeting and literally came out to that.”
He described seeing PC Palmer being attacked and receiving “two determined stab wounds” and added “I think anyone who came up against that individual would have faced serious, serious injury, if not death.”
Two plain-clothed protection officers subdued the attacker a few moments later. Sir Craig was then driven away and started coordinating the response to the attack.
Sir Craig’s actions, or inactions, have been heavily criticised. The Sun, the boot-boy of Fleet Street, has denounced him as Commissioner Coward and printed a mocked-up photo of him holding a white feather of cowardice. Unsurprisingly, the level of vitriol on social media makes for very uncomfortable reading.
A typical tweet taken at random reads: ‘So while unarmed Police Officers, an MP and passers-by ran to help your wounded colleague PC Palmer, your Deputy Commissioner locked himself in his car. Sir Craig Mackey you are a coward and a disgrace to your uniform’.
A former Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville said: “I am appalled that any police officer, of whatever rank, would simply drive away after seeing a colleague brutally attacked.”
There have also been calls for him to be stripped of his knighthood.
We are used to seeing police run towards danger, but no one knows how they will react in an emergency until it happens.
People caught up in a crisis often behave in unexpected ways. Remember the stories told after 9/11 of workers hesitating and wasting time when they could have been making good their escape from the Twin Towers. They tidied their desks, called colleagues, shut down computers while the buildings were burning.
Amanda Ripley in her book ‘The Unthinkable’ says in an emergency we all undergo a three-stage process: denial, deliberation and the ‘decisive moment’ when the survivor buckles down and acts.
Sir Craig has been vilified for not attempting to aid a colleague and acting to save himself. Of course we’ll never know if his intervention would have helped save Keith Palmer’s life.
Nelson Mandela once said something that at first appears counter-intuitive until you read it all: “It is better to lead from behind and put others in front especially when you celebrate victory, when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
To call Sir Craig a coward is unfair but what he did display at the ‘decisive moment’ was a complete absence of leadership.